It’s no secret that exercise can put us in a better mood. The basic reason for that is because when we exercise, our bodies release endorphins, which are one of our four feel-good chemicals. What many people don’t realize, though, is just how profound an impact working out can have on mental health. In fact, multiple studies have shown exercise can improve mood, reduce anxiety, and alleviate depression.
Exercise isn’t an emotional panacea, but for many it can alleviate some burdens, and even potentially reduce the need for psychiatric meds (with the approval of your physician). So to help us understand why exercise has such a strong impact on mental health, and what place it can have in the overall treatment of mental health issues, we spoke to Alison Mehta, D.O. and Dr. Michael Gervais.
Meet the Expert
Exercise’s ability to reduce depression and enhance mood is perhaps its strongest mental wellness benefit. Dr. Gervais says that the main reason exercise has such a great effect on our emotional wellbeing is believed to be because of the “exercise-induced increase in blood circulation to the brain,” as well as “an influence on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and, thus, on the physiologic reactivity to stress.”
Dr. Mehta notes that “exercise can have a significant benefit for mood. In fact, in mild depression and anxiety, it is often as powerful as therapy or medication.” She thinks that its ability to be used in lieu of medication can’t extend to more serious cases, though, stating that ”for people with moderate or severe depression, we highly recommend adding it to more formal mental health treatment.” She finds timing to be beneficial, too: “Early morning exercise, coupled with exposure to natural sunlight and group activity, is especially good for depression.”
Dr. Gervais tells us that it’s specifically aerobic exercise that has the most significant effect on depression, noting that “moderate intensity aerobic exercise has been found to have an impact on people with mild and moderate depression,” and “high energy expenditure exercise (3-5 days a week, for 12 weeks) has been found to be effective in reducing symptoms for people diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder.”
Supports Sleep Health
Exercise can improve both how long you sleep at night and the quality of sleep you get. It’s worth noting that this becomes progressively more true as we age; it has less of a positive effect on children and younger adults. While all forms of exercise can improve sleep, Dr. Gervais told us that HIIT training is particularly good for it, as are “mind-body” exercises such as yoga and Tai Chi, more so than aerobic work.
Boosts Brain Power and Memory
It’s your body that’s doing the work, but the benefits of exercise are also excellent for your brain. Dr. Gervais says this is because “exercise can enhance the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (a protein that is involved in neuronal health and growth).” One study mentions that “Aerobic fitness spares age-related loss of brain tissue during aging, and enhances functional aspects of higher order regions involved in the control of cognition. More active or higher fit individuals are capable of allocating greater attentional resources toward the environment and are able to process information more quickly.” In addition to aerobic exercise, resistance training, known mostly for its ability to improve our muscle mass, is particularly useful for improving memory.
Multiples Your Energy Levels
Exercising uses your energy while you’re doing it, but then it gives it back to you in spades. It may seem surprising that exercise can help you have more energy if you’re tired or fatigued to begin with, but that’s actually the case. Exercise reduces the symptoms of fatigue by about 65 percent, or two thirds, on average. That means that even if you’re feeling tired, exercise could help you feel less so; it’s a counterintuitive idea, but it’s been proven to be true much of the time.
Relieves Stress and Anxiety Symptoms
Anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric disorders in America, affecting about forty million people. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says that “science has also provided some evidence that physically active people have lower rates of anxiety and depression than sedentary people. Exercise may improve mental health by helping the brain cope better with stress.” Though the effects of stress and anxiety reduction are often considered temporary, they also mention that “in one study, researchers found that those who got regular vigorous exercise were 25 percent less likely to develop depression or an anxiety disorder over the next five years.”
A Final Word on Mental Health
Exercise can improve your mood, reduce depression, make your brain stronger, and help prevent anxiety. That said, you may need more than exercise to improve your mental health, and it's important to be honest with yourself about your needs. Dr. Mehta tells us that “When someone is trying to improve their mood with exercise, and they experience more than two weeks of low moods, guilt, hopelessness, disinterest in activities they enjoy, irritability or insomnia, they should be evaluated for depression.” If you’re experiencing severe issues, you shouldn’t even wait that long: “Anyone with suicidal thoughts, or fantasies of not existing should seek help always, regardless of their physical activity level. Also, panic attacks, trauma, or anxiety that interferes with the ability to function in some way, needs assessment.”
It’s also important to understand that exercise can help your mental health as a supplement to any other kind of treatment. Dr Mehta says, “For moderate or severe depression, or anxiety, most people still need talk therapy and likely medication management. However, it is possible that good amounts of exercise can hasten improvement, and possibly lower the necessary dosage or type of medications needed for recovery. Exercise is an important part of mental and physical health, we are built to move.” Most importantly, “Feeling good, and getting into a good frame of mind, finding fun, company and pleasure in activity are just as important as the actual exercise.” Knowing all this, hopefully you feel encouraged to discover how exercise can enhance your mental wellbeing.