woman exercising

You already know exercise is good for your physical health. The numerous benefits of exercise have been praised for decades now. It helps you burn calories and stay fit, protects your heart health, and improves your quality of life. But did you know that exercise has mental health benefits too? Studies have shown that exercise can be an effective tool against stress, depression, and anxiety.

While patients who battle mental health disorders often lack the motivation to practice any physical activity, an active lifestyle may help you keep your mental health conditions under control. Moreover, regular exercise can prevent mental health problems before they start.

How can exercise help with mental illness?

One of the positive effects of physical exercise is its power to enhance well-being. Exercise decreases stress hormones leading to a boost of endorphins, the chemicals that make us “feel good”. This process enhances our mood and improves energy levels. Consequently, we feel more positive and sleep better.

Physical activity can pull us out of the vicious circle of negative thoughts and emotions, often the source of our depression or anxiety, and redirect our focus towards the activity at hand. Exercise is often seen as a buffer against stress. While stress is an innate part of our life, people who work out regularly are less affected by it and find it easier to cope with everything life throws at them.

Exercise gives you a boost of self-confidence, enhances your self-esteem, and makes you feel better about yourself. Whether this happens because you lose weight, get more toned, or simply feel healthier, this benefit of exercise is all about making peace with yourself. Physical activity relieves tension and promotes mindfulness. While you focus on your yoga poses, weight training, or any other type of exercise, you concentrate entirely on your body and manage to be present, away from worries and negative thoughts that consume you. 

Additionally, exercise promotes social interaction and gives you the chance to meet new people, socialize, and escape your bubble of worries. Sometimes, a simple conversation or a smile is enough to boost our mood and feel grateful for what we have. Moreover, exercise materializes into a positive activity that helps you cope in a healthy way.

A study shows that running 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%. Moreover, maintaining an exercise schedule can prevent individuals from relapsing and promotes various changes in the brain to help you feel calmer and at peace.

What exercise should I do for mental health?

There are many types of exercise that can contribute to your mental health and well-being. All physical activity promotes increased energy levels, stamina, and positivity. You should find exercises that you enjoy to make it easier for you to follow a regular schedule. It is important to remember that when we say physical activity we include everything from walking to formal exercise programs. Exercise is not only about swimming, running, or lifting weights. Daily physical activities like household chores, gardening, washing your car, or taking the stairs, all count and make a difference. Now, it would be great if you were to adopt a regular exercise routine, to add a certain structure to your day that will keep you balanced and grounded. You can try one of these types of exercise:

  • Yoga – a 2018 Science Direct study shows that yoga can help reduce stress levels, lower heart rate, increase energy, and ameliorate the symptoms of depression and anxiety;
  • Tai chi – an ancient Chinese martial art, this type of exercise, according to Science Daily, reduces stress and anxiety, contributes to the treatment of depression, and increases self-esteem;
  • Aerobic exercise – whether it is jogging, swimming, playing basketball, or cycling, regular aerobic exercise improves mental health and reduces the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and panic disorder.

Regardless of the type of exercise you choose, you can expect a prompt release of endorphins, an increased sense of self-efficacy, and lower levels of anxiety and depression. Exercise works just like an antidepressant by increasing the brain’s levels of neurotransmitters and enhancing mood.

How often should I exercise to see results?

Fortunately, you don’t have to exercise for hours to reap the beneficial effects exercise has on your well-being and mental health. Only 30 minutes of exercise a day for three to five days a week will be more than enough for you to feel more confident, happier, and less anxious. However, even smaller amounts of moderate exercise, such as 10 or 15 minutes at a time, may help. You can break your exercise schedule into several short sessions or simply plan your physical activity according to your daily routine. Choose to take the stairs, park farther away from your destination or cycle to work.

Remember that more exercise is not necessarily better for you. You don’t need to run 10k to improve your mental health and emotional well-being. The key is consistency. Regular physical activity over a long period of time beats any intense physical activity practiced sporadically.

Time Magazine explains, researchers have found a higher mental health burden for people who exercise for more than six hours a week than for those who keep it to three to five times a week. The answer is not at all difficult to understand: basically, shorter exercise sessions are easier to fit in our daily routine and promote consistency.

Nevertheless, before you begin an exercise program, discuss it with a health professional. They can help you choose the best form of exercise for you depending on your health, medication, fitness level, and lifestyle.

Whether you want to exercise for depression, anxiety, or any other mental health disorders, you should start slowly and keep experimenting until you find the perfect type of exercise for you. Our bodies are different and we should respect their limits. Make a commitment to your exercise plan and never overdo it. The role of exercise is to make you healthier and happier. However, if you start seeing it as a burden or task, it loses its therapeutic effects and just adds to your anxieties.

Yoga