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Exercise & Mental Health: Connecting Your Mind & Body

healthy woman running
Exercise & Mental Health: Connecting Your Mind & Body

Our minds and bodies are closely linked, meaning how we treat one impacts the other. While we all know the physical benefits of exercise, the relationship between exercise and mental health is often overlooked.

Aside from lowering our chances of developing chronic conditions like heart disease and high blood pressure, exercise can have far-reaching mental health effects that can improve almost every facet of our daily lives.

Can exercise actually help your mental health? 

There is strong evidence backing the link between exercise and mental health. Physical activity triggers endorphin production in the body, launching a ripple effect of positive changes in our moods, energy levels, and mental clarity. For some, exercise can be as powerful as medication when it comes to improving mental health.

Endorphins often referred to as “feel-good” chemicals, are naturally produced in our bodies in response to pain and stress. As the nickname suggests, endorphins are responsible for boosting feelings of happiness and excitement. Endorphins can have such a powerful effect that they may even produce feelings of euphoria. Ever heard the term runner’s high?

Endorphin production from regular exercise can help mitigate the symptoms of various mental health concerns, including the following:

  • Depression. Some studies show exercise to be as effective as antidepressant medications in some individuals. For others, exercise is a helpful supplement to medication.
  • Anxiety. As with depression, the endorphins released during exercise can help offset the effects of anxiety. People with anxiety often have racing thoughts or constantly worry. Engaging in physical activities, especially those that require focus, can help reduce negative thought patterns.
  • Stress. Regular exercise can reduce stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline in our bodies. A boost in endorphins will also help regulate your mood and provide the focus you need to manage stressful situations.
  • ADHDPeople with ADHD typically have difficulty paying attention, regulating their emotions, and remembering. Exercise helps our bodies produce dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, chemicals found in ADHD medications like Ritalin and Adderall. These chemicals are known to improve focus and executive function. 
  • PTSD and Trauma. Psychological stress can manifest itself in our bodies, causing muscle tension, heart palpitations, and body aches and pains. Light exercise and stretching can relieve some of the physical symptoms of PTSD and trauma. It can also help regulate mood and calm anxieties related to PTSD.

In addition to helping with symptoms of mental illness, regular exercise can have a positive effect on our bodies and minds in general. Regular exercise offers the following benefits that can improve our quality of life over time:

Woman running to improve her overall wellbeing
  • Improved Sleep Quality. It makes sense that exercise improves our sleep quality. The more we move our bodies, the more likely we are to be tired around bedtime. Getting a good night’s sleep is crucial for mitigating stress and anxiety.
  • Improved focus and mental clarity. Regular exercise can help improve concentration, especially in people with conditions like ADHD or depression, which can cause inattentiveness or brain fog.  
  • Higher self-esteem. Exercise can lead to more positive thinking patterns and increased confidence thanks to enhanced mood from endorphins and dopamine production. 
  • Higher energy levels. While exercise may initially make us tired, it helps boost energy long-term. Physical activity causes changes in the body at the cellular level, increasing your body’s energy supply. 

What exercises are the best for improving your mental health? 

How you choose to exercise depends on your personal preference and area of concern. And exercising to improve your mental health doesn’t necessarily mean you have to hit the gym for an intensive session. 

People experiencing depression often feel fatigued and have a difficult time motivating themselves to exercise. Light exercise like walking or yoga is an excellent option if you’re struggling to get started. Research shows that even 15 minutes of walking each day can help boost your mood and energy levels.

People with anxiety also benefit from light exercises like yoga or even meditation. Almost any physical activity that requires mental engagement or relaxation is helpful for people with anxiety, as it can quiet racing thoughts and relieve tension in the body.

Vigorous exercise like running, aerobics, or lifting weights can offer a rush of endorphins and dopamine and provide health benefits like increased physical strength and lung capacity. While high-intensity activities are useful, low-intensity activity sustained over the long term is likely the key to improving mental health through exercise. Low-intensity exercise helps nerve cells in the brain grow and form new connections, leading to improved cognitive function. 

Things to keep in mind before running off to the gym

Almost any type of movement will improve your mental health in some capacity, even when done in short spurts. Whether you prefer to hit the gym or follow an exercise video at home, the key lies in finding what works for you.

Try to choose an activity you enjoy doing to keep you motivated to exercise. Everything from walking and jogging to dancing, swimming, and bicycling can help you improve your mental health. Even ten minutes of yoga in the morning or before bed can have a significant impact on your day-to-day life.

Remember that for most people, exercise is not a cure-all for mental health concerns. If you find exercise alone is not enough to achieve your mental health goals, speaking with a mental health professional can help. When combined with other techniques like therapy and medication, exercise is a powerful tool for bettering your mental health. 

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