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Creating a lighter, healthier you is a multi-step process. One of the most important steps, and the main focus of this section, is exercise. Here we explore everything from the benefits of exercise to how much and how often it is necessary to promote weight loss.

8 Exercise & Mental Health Benefits

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being and affects how we think, feel, and act. And if wondering how to improve mental health, you might want to lace up your tennis shoes and grab a gym bag!

8 Exercise & Mental Health Benefits

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being and affects how we think, feel, and act. It can be impacted by a number of factors, including life experiences and a family history, and is important throughout the entire lifespan.

People facing mental health problems may have low energy, pull away from others, experience severe mood swings, find it difficult to complete daily tasks, feel helpless, and distance themselves from loved ones. 

Conversely, those with positive mental health cope effectively with stress, work productively, make and sustain meaningful relationships, and realize their full potential.

Luckily, there are number of ways to acquire and maintain positive mental health, including getting physically active. So if wondering how to improve mental health, you might want to lace up your tennis shoes and grab a gym bag!

8 Benefits of Exercise for Mental Health

1. Exercise Relieves Anxiety and Depression

When it comes to exercise and mental health, relief from negative feelings is at the core. Exercise works to reduce depression and anxiety in a couple of fashions, including by releasing feel-good endorphins, brain chemicals that enhance your sense of well-being, and distracting the mind from negative thoughts.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America also suggests that even a quick 10-minute walk may be just as effective a 45-minute workout! Furthermore, some studies show exercise can work quickly to elevate depressed mood, with evidence linking physically active people to lower rates of anxiety and depression compared to those living a sedentary lifestyle.

2. Exercise Increases Mental Alertness

If looking to sharpen memory and concentration, regular exercise shows to be a key strategy. 

Exercise stimulates brain regions that are involved in memory function to release a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which rewires memory circuits to improve their efficiency according to Harvard Health.

3. Exercise Boosts Self-Confidence

Society places pressure on specific and often unrealistic body images, which can consequently lessen certainty of oneself. But regular exercise proves to boost self-confidence and self-esteem, largely by improving mental outlook on life whilst reducing negative feelings.

Furthermore, research published in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment shows physical activity has direct and indirect associations to self-esteem, perceived personal fitness, and body image.

4. Exercise Enhances Creativity

Creativity is the ability to create new ideas or solve problems in innovative ways and exercise has shown to enhance it. In fact, even the act of walking improves creative inspiration according to a Stanford study.

Researchers examined creativity levels of people while they walked versus while they sat: A person's creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when walking and remained apparent even shortly after! 

The study strengthens the justification for integrating bouts of physical activity into the day, whether recess at school or turning a meeting at work into a walking one. "We’d be healthier, and maybe more innovative for it," suggests Marily Oppezzo, a Stanford doctoral graduate in educational psychology and co-author of the study.

5. Exercise Enriches Social Interaction

Socialization is key for overall health, as isolation can negatively impact health on physical and emotional levels. Exercise can increase socialization, particularly in the group workout settings and when utilizing the workout buddy system. 

Research published in the Journal of Sports Economics backs subjects exposed to physical activity exhibit more trust and prosocial behaviors than those who are not exposed.

6. Exercise Protects from Dementia

Individuals who are mostly sedentary have a higher risk of developing dementia in old age.

The AHA encourages at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise weekly, including by running, swimming, biking, and any activity that elevates heart rate. Incorporating strength training two to three times per week also supports greater and sustainable fat loss over a longer duration.

7. Exercise Supports Weight Loss

Especially with the combination of aerobic exercise and strength training, exercise can lead to long-term, sustainable weight loss. And while weight loss appears as a physical benefit, there is a roundabout dropping a few pounds is a roundabout connection between exercise and mental health.

The mental benefits of weight loss likewise reduce depression, ease anxiety, and protect from Alzheimer’s, as well as mend self-confidence and improve memory.

8. Exercise Improves Sleep

There is a strong link between sleep and mental health and going regularly going without the seven to nine hours of shuteye nightly be psychologically damaging. 

Fortunately, regular exercise can help you sleep better by inducing sleep cycles, increasing sleep duration, improving sleep quality, and decreasing depressive and anxiety feelings.

How Much Exercise for Mental Health?

Especially for managing depression, Walters Kluwer Health endorse the following tips for exercise and mental health in terms of:

• Preferred type of exercise: Aerobic exercise shows to be the favored form of exercise for patients with major depressive disorder, though resistance training is also supported.

• Session frequency and duration: Three to five exercise sessions per week for 45 to 60 minutes per session.

• Intensity: For aerobic exercise, achieving a heart rate 50 to 85 percent of the individual’s maximum heart rate. For resistance training, a variety of upper and lower body exercises with three sets of eight repetitions at 80 percent of 1-repetition maximum.

• Suggested compliance for results: Data suggest that patients may experience improvement in depressive symptoms as little as four weeks after starting exercise, though continuing a workout program for at least 10 to 12 weeks shows the greatest antidepressant effect.

Ultimately, though, recommendations and suggestions vary from person to person and the most importance is finding enjoyable exercise. 

And whereas exercise and mental health have an undoubted link, seek out professional guidance as appropriate to help safely and effectively manage negative feelings and emotions.

Christy Zagarella's Photo
Written By Christy Zagarella, MS, RDN. Published on January 04, 2019. Updated on April 23, 2020.


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