The Science Behind How Exercise Improves Your Mental Health

If you struggle with mental health issues, you might sometimes feel like it’s a never-ending downward slope. Ailments like depression, anxiety, OCD, ADHD, and even dementia and PTSD can make it feel like even the simplest of tasks are mountains to climb. These conditions can make you feel powerless in so many aspects of your life.

While prescription medication and professional therapy can work wonders and help you balance out your mental health, having an activity, like exercise, to turn to can give you a sense of control over your life and provide a source of pride that you can use to work through some of your hardest moments.  

You might feel as though exercise is too much of a challenge or not worth the effort, but exercise has a low barrier to entry for people of all fitness levels. You can even see and feel small differences after just a few days of healthy exercise, while more significant changes can be observed in approximately eight weeks.

The Relationship Between Physical and Mental Health

While the root of your mental health issues may not stem from your physical health – though sometimes it may – it can be a huge part of it. Have you ever felt defeated when you were unable to do something because of physical limitations? Have you ever had to decline social outings with friends due to a lack of energy or the inability to do the activity?

There’s a strong connection between the physical and mental aspects of our bodies. How we see ourselves, and the things we are able to accomplish, can have a huge negative or positive impact on our mental health.

If you are overweight or generally unhealthy due to a sedentary lifestyle, you might suffer from poor body image, negative and defeatist self-talk, or simply an overall lack of fulfillment in your day-to-day life.

male and female high fiving each other

A lack of physical fitness can have a significant effect on your ability to partake in social events, outings with friends where excessive walking might be required, and activities like sightseeing while on vacation, among other things. Not only can this make you feel depressed about your ability to participate as much as you would like, but it can also leave you feeling alone and separated from friends. 

A huge part of maintaining good mental health is having a network of friends and family who love and support you, so feeling distant from them can be an additional strain. 

The Science of Exercise

Scientists have long been aware that there is a relationship between exercise and mood, and more recently, they’ve even discovered that different types of exercise can affect your hormones differently

Our body releases “feel-good hormones” known as endorphins when we exercise, which creates a sense of euphoria and lowers our perception of pain. Endorphins play a vital role in maintaining good mental health and stabilizing moods. Even just 15 minutes of exercise a day can help battle depression.

Not only can exercise improve your mood, but the physical component of working out can help curb our natural fight-or-flight response. This is especially useful in helping treat anxiety and other panic disorders such as PTSD.

When we’re scared, our body releases stress hormones to increase our chances of survival, known as the fight-or-flight response. This was a helpful mental tool for our ancestors, but now that there are much fewer threats to our lives, it can severely impact our mental health and increase anxiety and other panic disorders.

Exercise gives this response an outlet. After all, it is called the fight-or-flight response, so your body needs a physical way to channel the stress. 

Working out can also boost your memory and thinking skills by encouraging physiological changes. One such example is the production of growth chemicals that are responsible for the development of new blood vessels in the brain and the overall health and number of new brain cells. 

It’s even been suggested by various studies that the parts of the brain responsible for thinking and memory are larger in people who exercise regularly. This is especially important for people who are predisposed to or already have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

The Positive Effects of Exercise

The benefits of exercise aren’t limited to just the physical aspects. Partaking in physical fitness programs, such as weightlifting, classes, or even community sports can introduce you to new people and new activities. 

Having diverse interests and hobbies is important for good mental health because it allows you to focus on fun and positive ventures rather than things that make you unhappy. 

Whether it’s learning the rules and stances of a martial arts form, engaging in the historical and rich culture of yoga, or even finding your rhythm in a dance class, exercise is so much more than how much weight you can lift.

Additionally, discovering that your body is capable of doing amazing things you never thought possible can be a rewarding experience. Setting and achieving fitness goals is another aspect of diversifying your interests and taking pride in the things that you’ve been able to accomplish. Fitting into a smaller pants size feels pretty good too!

Overcoming Mental Obstacles to Exercise

two seniors doing exercise

It’s all well and good to be pumped to exercise, but the actual execution can sometimes be overwhelming. If you’re finding it difficult to motivate yourself, here are some tips that you can use to get the ball rolling.

Commit to at least 15 minutes. As noted before, even just 15 minutes of exercise can have a positive impact on your mental health, so start there and see where it goes. You might only get 15 minutes done, but once you’re into it, finishing the whole routine is not typically as daunting as you first thought it would be.

You can also try a different routine. Doing the same thing every time you exercise can get boring. Try a free YouTube video or go for a walk in a park you’ve never visited before. Trying something new can be fun and help you stay interested in working out.

You can also focus on smaller rewards for the end of your workout. It can be something simple like spending an extra $10 on a splurge item or treating yourself to a relaxing activity afterward. Try to avoid food as motivation, though, because that can undo all of your hard work.

Beyond feeling unmotivated, sometimes we encounter mental obstacles like self-doubt or being upset by a perceived lack of progress.

If you’re struggling with self-doubt, it can be helpful to have a workout buddy or even an online support team. There are many forums and apps that provide support for people who are starting their workout journey. Sometimes, just hearing other people’s stories can help you feel like you’re not alone and find the mental fortitude to get your exercise in.

If you feel like you haven’t been making progress, pay closer attention to your body. Besides weighing yourself, you can measure your bust, chest, waist, hips, thighs, and calves to more accurately track smaller physical changes. You can also set small goals, such as being able to stretch to your toes or do cardio for a certain amount of time before feeling winded. This can help put your progress in perspective.

If you’re feeling self-conscious about being in a weight room or fitness class, it’s helpful to remember that everyone is there for the same reason. No one is actually judging you and any mistakes you make are part of the learning process, and you’re definitely not the first person to make them. You can even ask your fellow gym-goers for tips – you’d be surprised how happy they’d be to help!

Educate yourself on different workout routines, exercise machines, proper forms, and diet to begin overcoming obstacles that can stop you from feeling your best while working out.

Exercise is an important contributor to mental health, and moreover, it’s something you can control. There are options out there for everyone, even if you’re struggling with physical limitations. Be kind to yourself, stick with it, and you’ll feel a little bit better every day.