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Key Takeaways:

  • Exercise is a powerful tool for promoting mental well-being, offering benefits for conditions like depression, anxiety, ADHD, PTSD, and stress. It reduces stress hormones, promotes relaxation, improves sleep, and helps manage symptoms.
  • Various exercises suit different needs. Aerobics, mind-body exercises, and strength training are among the exercise types you can explore.
  • Starting an exercise routine can be challenging, but setting realistic goals, finding activities you enjoy, and incorporating them into your schedule can help build consistency.

Most people know that exercise is good for the body but forget how it nourishes the mind and soul. Exercise and mental health are imperative parts of the well-being formula and can do wonders for improving symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and ADHD, among other things.

Embarking on an exercise routine may seem daunting, but you don’t need to be a fitness fanatic to get started. Regardless of your age or current fitness level, you have the power to harness the mental health benefits of exercise.

What’s the Connection Between Exercise and Mental Health?

Most people know the benefits of physical activity but understate its impact on mental health. The link between exercise and mental health is not just a theory but a scientifically proven fact. Exercise's benefits extend far beyond the immediate post-workout high. It stimulates the release of neurotransmitters like endorphins and serotonin, which act as natural painkillers and mood boosters [*].

In addition, exercise lowers cortisol levels, the body’s primary stress hormone [*].

Overall, regular physical activity can:

  • Reduce stress and anxiety
  • Improve sleep
  • Boost mood and self-esteem
  • Increase energy levels

What are the Mental Health Benefits of Exercise?

Exercise has an extensive and proven range of health benefits, including the following.

Mood regulation

Because exercise triggers the release of natural mood elevators and increases serotonin levels, it can effectively reduce symptoms of depression in adolescents and adults [*]. In addition, exercise reduces cortisol, promoting relaxation and improving overall sleep [*].

Improved cognitive function

Aside from producing neurotransmitters, exercise also stimulates neurogenesis, or the development of new brain cells. This process promotes better memory retention and focus [*]. Exercise also slows cognitive decline by improving blood flow to the brain, which can delay the onset of neurodegenerative diseases like dementia.

Enhanced well-being

Achieving your fitness goals or overcoming a fitness challenge is undoubtedly rewarding. Regular exercise can also help you develop a more positive self-image and self-confidence.

Types of Exercise and Their Impact on Mental Health

Regarding physical activity for mental health, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Some individuals may prefer a long run along the boulevard, whereas others might enjoy time at the gym.

Here, we’ll explore how the three primary exercise categories can positively impact your mood, brain chemistry, and overall well-being.

Aerobics

Aerobic exercises rhythmically and repetitively engage the largest muscle groups in the body. Examples include walking, jogging, cycling, and cardio.

According to several clinical trials, aerobic exercises reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression by helping the brain control responses to stress [*].

Aerobic exercises also help manage chronic conditions, reducing pain, lowering blood pressure, and controlling blood sugar, effectively improving the quality of life for people with cancer or coronary artery disease [*].

Strength training

Strength or resistance training involves working the muscles against a force to enhance endurance. Exercises include weightlifting, body weight activities like push-ups, and using resistance bands.

When the body undergoes strength training, it increases the level of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein supporting the growth and survival of brain cells [*]. Recent studies have found that increasing BDNF through strength training makes people feel more mentally engaged.

Strength training also improves the relationship with one’s body, as people develop a more positive self-concept and focus more on their physiological well-being.

Mind-body exercises

Mind-body exercises offer a unique blend of physical movement and mental focus to reduce stress and promote relaxation. Such exercises include yoga, which combines physical postures and controlled breathing, and Tai Chi, which involves slow movements and focused breathing to improve mood [*].

Exercises like Qigong, a Chinese practice combining gentle, flowing movements and meditation, enhance emotional regulation and self-awareness, providing avenues for introspection.

Exercise as a Complementary Treatment for Mental Health Issues

While exercise is most effective when coupled with other treatments like medication and therapy, it can effectively improve many symptoms related to depression. Here is a look at how it can benefit specific conditions.

Exercise and Depression

Regular exercise can prevent and treat mild depression by improving fitness, sleep, energy levels, and negative thought patterns [*]. However, how much a person can reap these benefits will ultimately depend on how much exercise they undergo. Most studies show that for exercise to treat depression effectively, a person must train at least half an hour three times a week for eight weeks straight.

Download our managing depression with exercise worksheet to encourage exercise for a reduction in depressive symptoms.

Exercise and Anxiety

Anxiety disorders affect roughly 40 million adults and are one of the most common psychiatric illnesses in adolescents. Fortunately, even a 45-minute workout can alleviate related symptoms for hours, with 25% of people becoming less likely to develop anxiety disorders through rigorous activity [*].

How so? Exercise diverts people from their anxieties, moves the body to decrease tension, changes brain chemistry, and builds resistance to intense emotions.

Exercise and ADHD

Exercise keeps the brain in good shape, helping with attention and clear thinking. People diagnosed with ADHD have less dopamine, which exercise can help release. Through this release, exercise can:

  • Improve impulse control and correct compulsive behavior
  • Improve executive functioning skills
  • Increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which enhances learning and memory [*]

Exercise and PTSD

We already know that exercise can significantly lower the amount of cortisol or stress hormones in the body, a component often present in people with PTSD. Thus, regular moderate exercise can help manage PTSD symptoms like anxiety and hypervigilance [*].

Exercise can also help curb sleep disturbances related to PTSD, as it promotes relaxation.

Finally, exercise can provide people with PTSD with a sense of empowerment and control over their lives. As they set and achieve fitness goals, people struggling with PTSD get a much-needed boost of self-esteem and self-confidence.

Exercise and Stress

Exercise creates a more resilient response to stress and provides a powerful avenue for stress management. It reduces cortisol, promotes relaxation, and improves sleep. In addition, it provides a healthy outlet for releasing pent-up energy and allows you to focus on the present moment.

Challenges and Barriers to Exercise for Mental Health

Though exercise offers many mental health benefits, getting started can be challenging. Here’s a breakdown of some common barriers many people face when developing a fitness routine:

  • Motivational barriers. As with any new habit, feeling demotivated can make developing a new exercise routine very challenging. People with depression may also experience negative self-talk and be too self-critical to pursue an exercise regimen.
  • Time constraints. Busy work, school, or family schedules can prevent individuals from developing exercise routines. Similarly, a lack of routine can make it challenging to curate one.
  • Physical limitations. Certain medical conditions and physical disabilities may limit opportunities to participate in exercise. Chronic pain can also hinder movement.
  • Social and environmental limitations. Affordability can be a barrier for individuals who prefer access to a gym. Another issue might be a need for more space.

How to Get Started with Exercise for Your Mental Health

Getting into a new routine or starting a new habit can be tricky, especially if you’re new to exercise. Here are a few tips to get you moving.

Assess your current fitness level and preferences

Before you start exercising, it’s imperative to determine your fitness level. Are you a beginner, or do you have some experience? Consider any physical limitations so that you can adjust accordingly.

Then, identify activities you might enjoy. Do you prefer running or swimming? Would you be more comfortable in a gym or outdoors? Citing your preferences will help you narrow your choices.

Set SMART goals

SMART goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. Setting goals using this formula will make managing and tracking your fitness habits easier.

Discover your exercise style

Discovering your exercise style involves a lot of exploration and open-mindedness. Go beyond the traditional gym workout. Dip your toes into alternative exercises like yoga, Zumba, hiking, or team sports.

If you can’t afford a gym membership, don’t fret—many free or low-cost options exist! YouTube is chock-full of engaging instructional videos. Do you prefer the great outdoors? Visit a free community park or discover safe public trails.

Turn exercise into a habit

Once you get into the swing of things, turn exercise into a habit by treating it like other appointments. Block off exercise days on your calendar or pair up with a fitness buddy to help keep you accountable.

Then, find tracking mechanisms that work. You can use a fitness app on your phone or use a journal.

Address challenges

Developing new, healthy habits can be challenging, but focusing on progress instead of perfection can keep things manageable.

If you lack motivation, start by setting small, realistic goals and rewarding yourself as you accomplish them. For example, if you aim to run daily, start by running twice a week, gradually increasing the frequency of your runs. Still, don’t hesitate to adjust your routine—scale down if you experience difficulties and up if you’re physically prepared to manage more.

If you don’t have much time to exercise, even short bursts can go a long way. Start in five-minute increments, finding opportunities to incorporate quick exercises like jumping jacks or stretches throughout your day.

Reward yourself

Treat your exercise goals like academic or work milestones. When you tick off a workout on your to-do list, reward yourself with a healthy snack, a warm bath, or whatever makes you feel happy and fulfilled!

When to Seek Professional Help

While exercise is a powerful tool for improving mental health and well-being, it isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, nor can it replace clinical therapy or medication. Here are some situations in which it might be time to consider professional help:

  • Your symptoms aren’t improving. If you still feel anxious, depressed, distracted, or see no noticeable improvement in your condition, seeking therapy can help you discover other treatment options. In rare cases, exercise might inadvertently worsen symptoms due to pushing oneself too hard or setting unrealistic expectations.
  • Your routine becomes obsessive-compulsive. Exercise should have positive effects and be a mood-boosting activity. If exercise is causing you to neglect other daily responsibilities or giving you “withdrawals” when you can’t commit to your routine, it may be time to seek professional guidance.
  • You’re becoming self-critical. Working out should make you feel more capable—not less. If you find yourself engaging in negative self-talk or developing a harmful body image, exercise might be doing more harm than good.
  • You feel overwhelmed and hopeless. Achieving fitness goals takes hard work and dedication. If you’re missing goals and feeling overwhelmed, it may be time to seek out a therapist who can provide a safe space to develop healthier coping mechanisms.

The Bottom Line

No matter your age, fitness background, and mental condition, regular exercise can provide valuable benefits for people with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other issues.

Exercise plays a significant role in many DBT programs. Discover other unique ways to improve your situation with our DBT worksheets.

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