Mental Health

Mandy Kloppers

Does Exercise Really Improve Mental Health? Here’s What the Science Says

Mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety, are common in adults. In the U.S., Major Depressive Disorder affects over 16.1 million adults each year. Meanwhile, anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults every year. 

While standard methods, such as medication and talk therapy, are used to treat these disorders, many overlook another option. One that is effective, frugal and least disruptive is exercise. 

Exercise may be good for your physical health, but it’s also beneficial for mental health. Here’s what researchers understand about how the magic of movement works for your mental well-being.

The Effects of Exercise on the Brain

Many studies show a link between exercise and mental health. If you partake in physical activity, you may experience fewer mental health problems in the long run. Many researchers are also learning the profound effects exercise has on the brain.

For instance, moving your body helps you focus and gain a sense of accomplishment. While high-intensity activity is good for your overall well-being, moderate workouts prove even more effective. 

Suppose you go out for a jog and get that feel-good high that many runners report experiencing. “Runner’s high” results from an intense workout where the body releases chemicals called endorphins — making you feel good. 

However, low-intensity workouts sustained over time prove to have real value. This type of activity induces the release of proteins called growth factors or neurotrophic. These proteins cause nerve cells to grow and stimulate new connections. 

Over time, your brain function improves and makes you feel better overall. For depressed people, neuroscientists have discovered that the hippocampus in the brain — the area that regulates mood — is smaller.

With moderate exercise, you support nerve cell growth in the hippocampus and improve the nerve cell connections. As a result, this helps relieve those who suffer from depression. 

Ways Exercise Benefits Mental Health

Even if you don’t suffer from a mental health disorder, exercise still boosts your mood and mental well-being. People who work out regularly do so because of this reason. Often, they feel more energetic throughout the day and can relax better at night. 

Regular exercise can positively impact those with ADHD, PTSD and other mental health disorders. It can even add years to your life, improve your sex life, reduce your risk of diabetes and lower your blood pressure.

Exercise is powerful medicine. While workouts alone may not be enough for someone with severe depression, they can be supportive — working alongside other effective treatments.

Here are some of the other ways physical activity strengthens your mental health.

1. Sharpens Your Memory

If you have difficulty concentrating, exercise can help. Those same “feel-good” endorphins released into your body can sharpen you mentally for the tasks at hand. And since exercise stimulates brain cell growth, it can also prevent mental decline related to aging.

As a result of exercise, you can focus — leaving you to feel better now and later in life. Furthermore, it enhances your memory and boosts creativity. So inspiration is right around the corner when you go for a walk or jog.

2. Decreases Stress

In addition to being able to think faster, exercise also reduces your stress levels. When your heart rate increases, you reverse brain damage affected by stress. Scientific research has shown this activity stimulates neurohormone production, such as norepinephrine.

In turn, you may not only find your cognitive health has improved, but you’re able to think more clearly. Stress has the ability to cloud your thinking. Yet, exercise will force your nervous system to communicate more effectively, improving your body’s ability to respond to stress.

3. Increases Self-Esteem

Between losing weight, increasing muscle tone and improving endurance, you get no shortage of physical achievements with regular exercise. As you continue to make those achievements, you boost your self-esteem overall. Thus, confidence comes with it.

Even if you aren’t looking to get slimmer or fit smaller clothing, you may not realize its occurrence until afterward. That’s one of the many benefits of working out. You nurture your mind, body and spirit.

4. Promotes Better Sleep

According to the CDC, 70 million people in the U.S. have chronic sleep problems. Moreover, sleep deprivation can worsen your mental illness, including chronic conditions, such as depression.

Exercise can help those with sleep disorders. You increase your body’s temperature during physical activity, creating a calming effect on your mind. Consequently, you spend less time counting sheep and get a better night’s rest.

Working out can also regulate your circadian rhythm, which is your body’s alarm clock — controlling you when to feel tired and alert. While improved sleep is a mental benefit of exercise, many sleep experts recommend not exerting yourself with physical activity close to bedtime.

Reap the Benefits of Exercise

You don’t have to force yourself to spend hours at the gym. Find activities that work for you, such as walking or bike riding. When you start doing activities that you enjoy, you feel better, motivated and get more out of life.

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