Can Exercise Improve Mental Health?

Updated December 29, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Exercising can be an important part of improving both your physical and mental health. Research studies have found that exercise can lower blood pressure, ease symptoms of depression, improve sleep, and reduce your risk of developing heart disease. While you will still want to seek help from your primary care physician for guidance on medication and counseling, you should consider using exercise as a supplement to these treatments. This article reveals this relationship between exercise and mental health and how the regular practice of any type of physical activity may improve your mental and physical health.

Wondering If Lifestyle Changes Can Improve Your Mental Health?

How Exercise Can Improve Your Mental Health

Many people who are managing stress and anxiety look to nonpharmacologic methods to treat their symptoms, especially due to the unwanted side effects that accompany the medication. While medication is important and necessary to manage different mental health disorders, supplementing with alternative interventions, such as exercise and healthy lifestyle modifications, is an ideal option for those who look to improve their quality of life and general well-being. 

Multiple studies have found that exercise can help relieve stress and anxiety. This decrease in negative emotions can be attributed to the added levels of endorphins, and serotonin exercising produces. These chemicals are known to improve one’s mood and sense of well-being. Other benefits of exercise include:

  • Improvement in sleeping patterns

  • Improved memory and cognitive functioning

  • Feeling more energetic throughout the day

  • Increased self-confidence and self-esteem

  • Being motivated to choose healthy methods to handle stress

  • Improved mood and outlook on life

  • Feeling more positive

  • A decrease in stress and anxiety

Exercise can relieve stress and anxiety not only due to physiological actions within the body, but also helps a person healthily distract themselves about the concerns of the day. When you exercise, you can focus solely on the physical task at hand and let go of any worries or stress you are currently managing. This active form of mindfulness is a healthy coping mechanism that frees you from external responsibilities into the present now of your body and mind. 

Exercising To Supplement Treatment For Mental Illness

When people think of taking care of their mental health, they may think of writing in their journal or spending time socializing in a healthy manner. While these are helpful methods for nurturing your mental health, exercise can be a beneficial addition to your mental health routine. Whether you start taking a long walk during lunch or gardening in the mornings before work, adding these exercises can supplement your current mental health treatments.

Regularly exercising can help in the management of mental health disorders, such as:

  • Depression (Major Depressive Disorder) — a mental health disorder characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, anxiousness, or emptiness with loss of interest in daily activities

  • Schizophrenia — a serious mental illness that affects how people interpret reality; symptoms may include disorganized thinking and speech  hallucinations, and delusions

  • Anxiety Disorder — mental health disorder that causes people to experience feelings of intense fear or worry; includes disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and a phobia or intense 

  • Substance Use Disorder — also known as drug addiction, substance use disorder can develop from the constant use of drugs or alcohol

  • Bipolar Disorder — formerly known as manic depression, bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme shifts in mood that range from depression (hypomania) to disruptive emotional highs (mania) 

Borderline Personality Disorder — mental health disorder that warps one’s thoughts and feelings about themselves, which can lead to low self-esteem and entering unstable relationships

Fitness Activity Ideas Help Improve Your Mental Health

If you are new to fitness routines or exercise of any form, the idea may seem overwhelming. However, exercise does not mean you have to run a marathon or visit a gym seven days a week. There are several options for you to choose from, including dance, yoga, or a simple walk through a pretty park. 

 The following are some physical activity and exercise routines that try:

  • Yoga for stretching, strength, and mindfulness

  • HIIT (high intensity interval training) for intense cardiovascular work in an upbeat atmosphere

  • Personal weightlifting training to strengthen the mind and the body

  • Learning a new sport (such as surfing or horseback riding)

  • Rock climbing outside or at a recreation center

  • Hiking outside to enjoy nature and take some time for yourself

  • Running outside to improve your cardiovascular health

  • Practicing Pilates with friends to achieve better balance and core stability

No matter which activity you choose, you most likely will leave feeling refreshed and energized. Exercise removes toxins from your body while releasing endorphins, good-feeling hormones that reduce pain and lift the mood. Beyond the mood-lifting effects of exercise, the benefits on your cardiovascular system work to strengthen your heart while lowering your blood pressure. Lastly, after only thirty minutes of exercise, your body release dopamine, another mood-lifting hormone that help reverse the effects of depression and improves resilience against stress and anxiety. 

Tips For Staying Motivated

With everyday stressors such as work or school, it can be challenging to  to improve your mental health and supplement your therapy or medication routine. There are ways to keep you on track and motivated.

Wondering If Lifestyle Changes Can Improve Your Mental Health?

You should first assess your current fitness level. Some people work with trainers to figure out how fit they are while others just make an educated guess based on their current workout routine. Once you determine your current level of fitness, you can set some goals for yourself. This can be anything from “perform ten push-ups in a row” to “run an entire mile without stopping.”

Next, you should figure out when you can fit some workouts into your schedule. Some people block out times on their calendar to work out while others join with friends to work out together. Many people benefit from hiring a personal trainer to help them out. Their personal trainer can help them assess their current fitness level, create realistic goals, and challenge themselves during every workout. They also follow up on these goals and help you hold yourself accountable to what you want to achieve. 

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