Mental Health Benefits Of Exercise That Make Every Sweat Sesh Worth It

The connection between exercise and mental health fuels the way we feel. Here’s how.

July 23, 2018
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Do you ever feel like you’re glowing from the inside out after you exercise? You may credit those “feel-good” hormones, known as endorphins, for the positive vibes. But endorphins aren’t the only reason we feel amazing after a sweaty gym or studio session. There are other mental health benefits of exercise that help us feel good long after we hop off the elliptical.

“I often ‘prescribe’ exercise to my clients,” says Allison Gervais, a licensed psychotherapist at Marin Mental Wellness in San Francisco. “I’ve found for the vast majority of my clients who incorporate some type of exercise into their weekly schedule that it can help lift a lot of mental health disorders.”

While a desire to stay in shape and look our best can motivate us to hit the gym, the biggest payoff to moving our bodies might just be the psychological benefits. Regularly getting our heart rates up and challenging our muscles helps us become happier, more resilient, and less stressed-out individuals.

Here are some of the most compelling mental health benefits of exercise that make every sweat sesh worth it, no matter how much motivation you need to summon to get moving.

1. Treat and Prevent Depression.

Depression is one of the most prevalent mental health issues in the United States. While mental health professionals have long relied on antidepressants, talk therapy, or a combination of approaches to treat this disorder, they’ve started adding another option to their toolkits: exercise.

“Exercise isn’t a substitute for antidepressants, but for someone with mild depression, exercise can help lift it.”

—Allison Gervais, LMFT

Science shows that one of the mental health benefits of exercise is its ability to help people cope with and eventually overcome depression. One study found that engaging in aerobic exercise three to five times a week was an effective treatment for people with mild to moderate depression.

“Exercise isn’t a substitute for antidepressants, but for someone with mild depression, exercise can help lift it,” says Gervais.

Not only does physical activity seem to be a valid treatment for depression, but one of the other mental health benefits of exercise is its ability to prevent this mood disorder. Researchers who tracked nearly 34,000 adults over the course of 11 years discovered that those who didn’t exercise were more likely to experience depression compared with participants who did any physical activity of any level of intensity for just an hour a week.

Another study that followed 11,000 people for up to 50 years found that people who were active in their adult years experienced fewer symptoms of depression than those with more sedentary lifestyles.

When it comes to the mental health benefits of exercise, moving the body to treat and ward off depression makes it worth every last step you take.

2. Reduce feelings of anxiety.

Contrary to popular belief, you might actually be able to run away from your anxiety. But it won’t necessarily involve quitting your job or leaving your city. Instead, regular physical activity (whether that’s jogging, skiing, flowing on your yoga mat—whatever!) can help reduce the symptoms of anxiety.

“There are several techniques to treat anxiety, and one way is distraction.”

—Allison Gervais, LMFT

“There are several techniques to treat anxiety, and one way is distraction,” says Gervais. “Going to the gym with some music can distract us from worry. Physical activity gives your brain a break that might allow you to think more clearly about a problem.”

For people with anxiety, reaping the mental health benefits of exercise might depend on how they stay active. A systematic review of randomized clinical trials found that exercise in general shows promise as a useful treatment for anxiety (but more studies are necessary).

The evidence seems to be stronger when you look at yoga25 out of 35 studies showed that people experience a significant reduction in stress and anxiety when they regularly hit their mats. People who take their workouts outside with just a simple 50-minute walk in the woods also saw a drop in anxiety.

What’s left is a study that looks at whether doing yoga in the forest offers even more benefits for our minds. Science, we’re waiting for you.

3. Stop insomnia in its tracks.

Ever suffer from insomnia? It’s the worst: You’re up all night, tossing and turning, only getting more and more stressed about the amount of sleep you’re not getting as the clock ticks. It has crept into my life on and off for years, but I’ve found that exercise fights the condition better than anything else I’ve tried.

Science supports what I’ve observed about myself—that tiring out your muscles during the day is key to getting a good night’s rest. In fact, mental health and exercise statistics show that aerobics might be just as effective at fighting chronic insomnia as hypnotic drugs are. The National Sleep Foundation agrees, citing studies that found that when adults with insomnia started working out, they “fell asleep more quickly, slept slightly longer, and had better sleep quality than before they began exercising.”

The mental health benefits of exercise and its ability to help you get a good night’s rest show promise, especially in people with certain disorders, says Gervais.

“Sleep helps regulate moods. People with depression might sleep too much, and anxiety can cause insomnia. Getting too little sleep can increase negative emotions, which can result in increasing anxiety and depression,” she explains. “And don’t forget about bipolar disorder, which requires a structured sleep schedule to help remain regulated.”

Curiously, exercise seems not only to enhance sleep but also to reduce fatigue. A study out of the University of Georgia found that people who suffer from fatigue can boost their energy levels by 20 percent with regular, low-intensity physical activity.

More research needs to be done on the connection between exercise and our energy levels, but it’s clear that moving around on a regular basis plays a role in this relationship.

4. Give stress the one–two punch.

Stress is associated with a host of physical and emotional ailments, from high blood pressure and diabetes to depression and anxiety. But the good news is that working up a sweat can help you work through the stresses of life.

“In San Francisco, where my clients live, people are really stressed out. They have a lot going on, between working long hours and over-scheduling themselves, and it can be really difficult to manage,” says Gervais. “But exercise is a really great form of self-care and a good way to take a break. Even going out for a walk or quick jog after work can really relieve some stress.”

While exercise is a stress on the body, the physical challenge aids in reducing stress hormones in the brain, which helps people relax. Furthermore, the repetitive motions common in most types of physical activity (think hitting a tennis ball, jumping rope, or lifting weights) put you into a sort of moving meditation that promotes calmness and clarity. It helps you forget about the woes of the day and emerge from the gym in a more relaxed state.

Ever notice how when you’re stressed out about something at work, you feel the strong urge to take a walk? It’s more than just escapism—it’s your body telling you to work through some of that stress by moving. Listen to it.

5. Boost your heart rate to boost your self-esteem.

Feel down on yourself sometimes? (Who doesn’t?) Self-doubt and low confidence happen to almost everyone from time to time, but a boost in self-esteem is actually one of the mental health benefits of exercise.

Exercising always comes with challenges. For some people, that challenge is simply making it to the gym when they intend to. For others, it might mean achieving a personal best in their sport, whether that’s running or softball. Small or large, those successes add up and give you a new perspective on what you’re able to achieve both in and out of the gym.

The social benefits of exercise also go on to improve how we see ourselves. Joining a sport, working out at a gym, or even running outside gives us the chance to get into the world and potentially connect with others.

“Exercise combats isolation,” says Gervais. “Part of isolation is that people really don’t feel confident in a social situation, so building self-esteem can help with that. Even just being in an environment with other people can help, but you can take it a step further and join a walking club or group fitness class and start meeting others.”

Take it from me—working out is what gave me enough confidence to quit the corporate world and pursue my dreams of writing. Who knows where an exercise-induced surge in confidence could lead you?

Although people have known anecdotally for some time that physical activity helps their general mental health, scientists are only now starting to discover the true extent of the benefits of exercise on clinical mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.

More study needs to be done on exactly what types of exercise are best for our psychological health, how often we should be active, and what kinds of environments are best for working out. But with what researchers have discovered so far, it’s hard to doubt the mental health benefits of exercise.

Until we have more conclusive data, don’t worry so much about the details: Just focus on moving, regularly and often, and working with a qualified mental health professional to ensure you’re feeling your absolute best—mind and body. Find an activity you enjoy, schedule it throughout your week, and see what mental health benefits of exercise blossom in your life.

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