The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

Dana Bender
Dana Bender
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Consistently exercising over time has an array of health benefits. It’s easy for individuals to emphasize the physical benefits of exercise more, but there are a variety of mental health benefits that are just as important to note.

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), mental health is effectively functioning in productive daily activities such as work or school, cultivating and maintaining healthy relationships, and showcasing an ability to be resilient to change and cope with challenges.

Engaging in regular physical activity can help boost mental health in a variety of ways including but not limited to mood, sleep, mindset, self-esteem, and confidence, and can even help contribute to more adaptive thinking.

As all Wellness Coaches and fitness professionals know, movement is key for wellbeing. Read below the four major health benefits of exercise. 

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4 Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

  1. Stress reduction
  2. Increased self-efficacy and confidence
  3. Quality of sleep improvement
  4. An opportunity to build presence and embodiment

#1 Stress Reduction

Exercise is known to be a great way to combat daily stress and boost overall resilience while working to overcome larger stressors. One reason for this is that exercise boosts feel-good neurotransmitters, also known as endorphins.

Another reason why exercise helps reduce stress is that it allows an individual to shift their attention away from the stressor towards the physical activity being performed. This shift of attention helps to separate from the stressor. Additionally, stepping away from the stressor to exercise can often help provide a different perspective on how to respond to the stressor at hand.

#2 Increased Self-Efficacy and Confidence 

If an individual exercises regularly and sees themselves reaching this behavioral goal consistently, it can help increase their self-efficacy. This means that it increases the belief in their ability to change behavior or reach a goal in other areas of their life. This improved self-efficacy can boost self-esteem, build confidence, and contribute to feeling empowered in other areas of daily life.

#3 Sleep quality improvement 

Even light, aerobic exercise has been found to have a significant impact on sleep quality. It can even help increase the possibility of more deep sleep. If we are sleeping better, this can have a significant impact on mood, energy, memory consolidation, and more. One reason sleep quality improves from exercise relates to the first point about how exercise reduces stress.

Stress can interfere with both sleep onset (ability to fall asleep) and sleep maintenance (ability to stay asleep). A second reason why sleep quality improves with exercise is that engaging in physical activity can help someone connect to their body and minimize living too much in an active, thinking mind that can run interference with the body’s natural sleep cycle.

#4 An Opportunity to Build Presence and Embodiment

Speaking on the idea that was just mentioned, exercise can help an individual connect more and be mindful of their own body, also known as embodiment. This shift away from “living” in the mind to become more present to one’s own physical body and the physical sensations experienced during exercise can have a profound impact on mental health.

Read Also: 7 Mindfulness Techniques to Reduce Stress

Often if an individual is experiencing rumination and anxious thoughts, they are primarily focused on the future or past. Exercising with the intent of building presence and embodiment can help shift attention back to the present moment and minimize rumination.

How to Overcome Anxiety and Rumination Through Exercise

To aid the success of exercise on anxiety and rumination, it is highly encouraged to treat an exercise session as screen-free time. The mental health benefits of exercise are experienced exponentially if a person takes a break from active technology usage such as texting, scrolling the internet, or being on social media. Listening to music is completely fine.

Another way to aid the benefit of exercise on mental health is to consider exercising with others. Exercising with a friend or coworker can increase social wellbeing, build social support, and have a positive impact on coping with stress and anxiety.

How Exercise Reduces Depression

Similar to reducing stress and anxiety, exercise can significantly improve depression as well. As mentioned above, exercise can significantly improve mood, self-esteem, and release feel-good endorphins. These benefits are correlated with reduced severity of depression. According to a study published in 2005 where 80 participants were divided into five groups with differing levels of physical activity. For all groups, the ratings of depressive symptoms on the Hamilton scale fell regardless of exercise dosage.

Engaging in low-intensity exercise over time can help improve brain function which can help with depression. According to Dr. Miller, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, "In people who are depressed, neuroscientists have noticed that the hippocampus in the brain—the region that helps regulate mood—is smaller.

Exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression.” On a similar note, in 2006 researchers did a meta-analysis of eleven studies that looked at the effects of exercise on mental health. This research review found that exercise can be an important intervention for clinical depression.

Read also: The Happiness-Boosting Benefits of Working Out

Research Facts on Exercise and Mental Health

Overall, there are a variety of studies out there that show the strong correlation between physical exercise and mental health and wellbeing. One more recent report from the John W. Brick Foundation in May 2021 looked at peer review articles published between 1990 and 2020 and found that “approximately 89% of all published peer-reviewed research report a positive, statistically significant relationship between exercise/physical activity and mental health.”

In this study, they found that cardiovascular movement and yoga are some of the top types of physical activity for mental health. Furthermore, a study published in 2018 that looked at 1.2 million adults who completed a Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey in 2011, 2013, and 2015 found that individuals who exercised reported 1.5 fewer days of poor mental health a month compared to people who do not exercise.

This specific study found that cycling, aerobics, team sports, and going to the gym as activities with the largest reductions. Although these are just a few examples, there is a consensus among most research of the value that regular exercise can have on mental health and wellbeing.

How to Exercise More

If you are considering exercising more, here are some tips to get started. First, it is important to remember that setting small, attainable goals 3-4 days a week to start with will help increase success. Focus more on frequency than duration. Secondly, choose an exercise type that you find fun and enjoyable. If you are considering what specific exercises to do as part of your workout focused on improving mental health, there is no one-size-fits-all.

However, light, aerobic activity ranging from 20-30 minutes multiple times a week is a great place to start. This aerobic activity can include walking, biking, jogging, and even swimming. Weight training two or three days a week is another strategy as well. Lastly, consider incorporating some mind-body exercises such as yoga, Pilates, or Tai-Chi which adds in a breathing element that can have additional benefits on reducing sympathetic nervous system stress.

If mind-body exercise does not interest you, consider incorporating calming yoga poses as part of a cool-down that can have a calming effect on the nervous system. Try yoga poses like child’s pose, reclining knees to chest, legs up a wall, and supine reclining twist holding each pose about five to ten breaths. It is important to pick the exercise modalities that sound enjoyable and will work best related to any physical limitations, environmental factors, etc.

In conclusion, mental health is just as important as physical health and it is important to prioritize and engage in activities that help improve mental wellbeing such as exercise. It is important to mention that individuals can reach out for additional mental health support by utilizing services like counseling if more assistance is needed.

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Chekroud, S.R., et al. (2018). Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1.2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: A cross-sectional study. The Lancet Psychiatry, 5(9), 739-746

Dunn AL, et al. (2005). Exercise treatment for depression: Efficacy and dose response. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 28(1), 1–8.

Exercise is an all natural treatment to fight depression (2021, Feb). Harvard Health publishing. Retrieved January 2022 from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/exercise-is-an-all-natural-treatment-to-fight-depression

John W. Brick Mental Health Foundation (2021, May). Mental Wellbeing Report. https://www.johnwbrickfoundation.org/move-your-mental-health-report/

Otto, M. W., et all (2006). Exercise interventions for mental health: A quantitative and qualitative review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 13(2), 179–193

Sharma, A. et al. (2006). Exercise for Mental Health. Primary Care Companion – The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 8(2), 106.

The Author

Dana Bender

Dana Bender

Dana Bender, MS, NBC-HWC, ACSM, E-RYT. Dana works as a Wellness Strategy Manager with Vitality and has 15+ years experience in onsite fitness and wellness management. Dana is also a National Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach, an Adjunct Professor with Rowan University, an E-RYT 200 hour Registered Yoga Teacher, AFAA Group Exercise Instructor, ACSM Exercise Physiologist, and ACE Personal Trainer. Learn more about Dana at www.danabenderwellness.com.


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