The top six mental health benefits of exercise

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry
Updated February 9, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Taking steps to preserve your mental health can be imperative, but it may be challenging to know where to begin. Since physical and mental well-being can be intricately connected, finding ways to nourish and stimulate these two aspects of your body and mind may be valuable. 

Because of this connection, many people have found that regular physical activity can improve mental fitness. Understanding how exercise and physical healthcare impact mental health might also allow you to develop a comprehensive self-care routine.

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Want to understand how exercise can improve your mental health?

A brief review on the benefits of exercise

According to the National Institutes of Health, aerobic exercise and other forms of movement are linked to reduced depression and anxiety. Getting your body moving and engaging in exercise can also come with a series of other health benefits.

While your mental health might gain advantages from physical activity, so can your emotional and physical health. Varying factors of well-being are often tied to one another. For example, your emotional and physical health can impact your mental health and vice versa. For these reasons, getting regular exercise can offer multiple benefits at once.  

If you are not used to exercising, you may be unsure where to begin. The benefits of exercise are not mutually exclusive to an intense and rigorous movement. Light stretching, jogging in a park, or running for ten minutes on a treadmill a few times per week can also be beneficial. Exercise has benefits at all levels, and as you progress, you may feel ready to take on more intense levels of physical activity. If not, know that you are still benefiting from light movement. 

The leading mental health benefits of exercise

Science, psychology, and other areas of study have documented the positive impact that aerobic exercise and other forms of physical movement can have on mental health. No matter who you are, what your lifestyle is like, or what challenges you may be facing, it can be vital to take steps to make room for regular exercise. Your mental well-being is worth it. With that in mind, you deserve to know about the following six mental health benefits.

Stress reduction

Reducing stress may be one of the most essential mental health benefits of aerobic exercise and other forms of physical activity. The American Psychology Association explains that 44% of adults engage in walking or other forms of exercise to cope with stress. 

Reducing your stress levels may improve the quality of your life and help you focus on vital tasks. In addition, regular exercise can improve your interpersonal relationships, manner of processing information, and ability to deal with challenges. These factors can impact your ability to move through the world and carry yourself confidently. 

Clearer thoughts and memories

Another of several mental health benefits of getting in exercise includes clearer thoughts and memories. When you get your body moving, endorphins are released. While these endorphins can make you feel better physically, they can also improve concentration skills and help foster new brain cell growth. Having clearer thoughts and memories can positively affect your mental health while combating specific declines linked to aging.

Better sleep at night

Getting a high-quality, proper night's rest can be another one of the benefits of exercise. Since regular exercise increases the physical temperature of your body, your brain may have an easier time winding down when you want to sleep at night.

Another sleep-related health benefit of exercise includes circadian rhythm regulation. Each person's circadian rhythm determines when they feel sleepy and awake. In the long run, getting a consistent night's rest can benefit your mental and emotional health. Poor sleep quality is linked to adverse mental health outcomes like anxiety, depression, and mania. On the contrary, high sleep quality is linked to increased productivity, a better mood, and improved memory.

Connections with others 

Interpersonal relationships, or a lack of these connections, can play a vital role in the mental health of any individual. Since humans are wired for connection, it can be vital to have robust support systems to help you through difficult moments and cheer for you during accomplishments. Exercise paves the way for you to interact with and get to know other human beings.

While some individuals prefer to exercise alone, there are several ways to get your body moving alongside others. Taking workout classes regularly or signing up for a gym subscription can help you connect with other human beings. In the long run, these positive relationships may help you develop better social skills or connections you previously didn't have. Research shows that those who are well-connected with others have more positive mental health outcomes, such as reduced stress and a greater sense of well-being.  

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Lessons about yourself 

Being in touch with who you are can play a vital role in your mental health. To learn more about yourself, you might consider participating in routine exercise.

Not all forms of exercise are the same. Some people prefer light or aerobic exercise, while others find that more intensive exercise, such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), is more beneficial. No type of exercise is necessarily "better" than the other. The type of exercise you choose to engage in is up to you; however, it can help you learn more about yourself and your interests. 

For example, you might discover you are competitive when you choose to take up sports. You may learn that you have a passion for running the first time you give the treadmill a chance. Or you might find that dancing pulls you out of your depression after deciding to try a Zumba class. Exercise can help you gain a more robust sense of self-awareness, which can contribute to mental health. 

Physical health                 

All forms of health, whether physical, emotional, or mental, are interconnected. For this reason, a reduced likelihood of experiencing physical health issues is also a mental health benefit of exercise.

Physical health issues can play a role in the quality of someone's mental health. People with concerns about their ability to function, provide for themselves or their loved ones, or live a healthy life can develop mental health conditions like depression or anxiety. However, moving your body regularly can reduce the likelihood of coping with subsequent mental health concerns. 

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Want to understand how exercise can improve your mental health?

Counseling options 

Exercise can provide many mental health benefits, but it may not be a substitute for therapy and other mental health services. You're not alone if you struggle to cope with mental health challenges. Regardless of barriers to mental healthcare, many types of therapy are available, including online therapy, which can be more cost-effective and convenient than some in-person options. 

Through online platforms like BetterHelp, you can connect with an experienced, licensed therapist trained to guide you toward more positive mental well-being. You can meet with your therapist anywhere you feel comfortable with a reliable internet connection. In addition, you can select phone, video, or chat formats for your sessions, offering an element of flexibility.  

For those struggling with various mental health concerns, online therapy can be an effective tool for healing. One study assessed the effectiveness of an internet-based cognitive-behavioral therapy intervention to treat psychiatric disorders. Researchers found that the program successfully reduced the prevalence and severity of participants' symptoms of depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and bipolar disorder, with results as effective as those found with in-person therapy.

Takeaway

Regular physical activity can have many mental health benefits, which may make it a worthwhile investment. Positive mental well-being is often associated with more significant outcomes like restfulness, improved connections, and stress reduction. The benefits you see in your own life can vary, as everyone can respond differently to various kinds of exercise. 

Working with a licensed counselor may also be valuable if you want to enhance your mental health alongside your exercise routine. A therapist can support you as you make lifestyle adjustments and learn about mental health.

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The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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