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Exercise for your mental health

Posted by Jill Derryberry on Oct 4, 2023 10:56:38 AM
Jill Derryberry
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Exercise and physical activity improve our physical health through cardiovascular workouts and strength training to build and maintain muscle mass. It also improves our immune system function and helps to prevent many chronic diseases, condition, and injuries among other physical benefits. Exercise is also a known mood booster with many mental health benefits. The Mayo Clinic states that depression and anxiety symptoms often improve with exercise and can keep them at bay once they have lessened or gone away. Research hasn’t shown just one clear way that exercise works to help increase our happiness but there are many proven benefits to exercise that help improve both our mental health as well as our physical health.


“When you exercise, it increases endorphins, dopamine, adrenaline and endocannabinoid — these are all brain chemicals associated with feeling happy, feeling confident, feeling capable, feeling less anxiety and stress and even less physical pain.”

Dr. Kelly McGonical

Exercise Gives You Endorphins


Elle Woods, the main character in the Legally Blond movie played by Reese Witherspoon, has a famous line, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.”   While this was part of a speech when the character is proving that a woman didn’t shoot her husband (“Because happy people don’t shoot their husbands. They just don’t.”) you get the idea, it is proven that exercise can release the mood enhancing hormones endorphins that help to relieve pain, reduce stress, and improve your sense of well-being. There are other ways to boost your endorphins as well like meditation, massage and laughing. Endorphins aren’t the only hormone that exercise can produce in the body to help your mental health.


Exercise Can Boost Dopamine and Serotonin Levels


Dopamine and serotonin are two more hormones that make us feel happier and less stressed. The most commonly used antidepressants work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. One natural way to increase these hormones is by working out. When you exercise, your body releases more tryptophan, the amino acid your brain uses to make serotonin. This boost in serotonin (along with other endorphins and dopamine) is why some people may get that happy feeling known as a “runner’s high” after an intense workout. It is important to note that you might not get an intense euphoric feeling (“runner’s high”) after your workout, but you will still get the increased feel-good hormone levels and an overall mood boost.


“If you are in a bad mood go for a walk. If you are still in a bad mood go for another walk.”

― Hippocrates


Exercise Can Decrease Stress Levels


Physical activity helps to decrease or regulate stress hormones like cortisol. When stressed, our bodies increase our cortisol levels which can cause inflammation and when they remain elevated, can lead to chronic stress and anxiety. Chronic stress can take a toll on you both physically and mentally. According to the American Heart Association, physical signs of stress can be headaches or trouble sleeping and can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. Emotional signs of stress can be feeling anxious or depressed or both. Stress can also make you feel cranky or forgetful.


Regular physical activity can help to reduce stress which in turn may relieve tension, anxiety, and depression. Any kind of exercise or physical activity can help. Walking, pickleball, a workout class, biking, swimming, yoga, gardening, strength training or dancing are all possible options. Find something (or several things) you enjoy and will do on a regular basis.


“I do have to take care of myself, not only because I’m in the movies, just for mental health reasons. I exercise for me. You know, maybe it would be nice to not have to do that in order to feel good, but I do. I feel like I have to, to feel good. To clear my head and all of that, so.” 

-Annette Bening

Exercise Can Increase Self-Image and Self-Esteem


Exercise can increase your confidence as you try new things, get better at exercises or a sport or reach new goals. For example, someone who works for weeks to build their upper body strength to complete a push up or a pull up will feel great once they achieve that goal. Or crossing the finish line of a 5k after working hard to train to be able to finish that race.   These feelings of self-mastery can boost your self-esteem which in turns reduces stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms.


Exercise not only changes your body, it changes your mind, your attitude and your mood.


Exercise Can Be a Good Distraction


One of the ways that researchers think exercise can help our mental health is the Distraction Hypothesis. Doing some kind of physical activity requires some focus and can help take your mind off any worries you may have. If the activity involves repetitive motions, it will take the focus from your mind and into the rhythm of your movements. This will give you many of the same benefits of meditation, like calmness and clarity. It also reduces the stress hormone, cortisol.


Exercise Can Provide Social Support


Connection with others is an integral part of our health, physically and mentally. A low level of social interaction was found to be as harmful to one’s lifespan as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Having positive relationships with others could influence personal behaviors that influence your health. For example, your spouse or a friend may encourage you to eat healthier and go for walks. Other studies confirm that having social relationships can positively affect our mental health as well. Having gone through the recent pandemic, most of can relate to the fact that less social interaction can contribute to loneliness, feelings of isolation and feeling depressed.


Exercising is a great way to find or create social connections. Joining a gym, a recreational pickleball league, a running group or group exercise class can boost our connectedness with others by talking with others in the group, sharing feedback, using friendly competition, and feeling like you are part of something. Physical activities can create events where you connect with others which increases our feelings of connection and improves our emotional wellbeing.


How Much Exercise Should You Do?


Adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 1/2 hours) a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, according to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. A study found that adults who completed 150 minutes of brisk walking per week had a 25% lower risk of depression when compared with adults who did not exercise. Those who walked for 75 minutes a week had an 18% lower risk of depression. Higher physical activity levels only offered minor additional benefits according to the researchers.


For your overall health, the American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (think walking or a leisurely bike ride) five days a week PLUS strength training twice a week. Or at least 20 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (like jogging or a challenging bike ride) three days a week PLUS strength training twice a week. The Centers for Disease Control offers more detailed guidelines.

Don’t let these guidelines intimidate you, even 10-minute exercise sessions a couple times a day have been shown to help you get the effects without it taking over your schedule. Find a way to work movement into your daily routine even in short bursts. Any type of exercise for any length of time done regularly can increase both your physical and mental health.


To start exercising when you are experiencing mental health problems can feel difficult, or even impossible. Start small and start with something that you usually enjoy. Keep reminding yourself that you will feel better from exercise, both long and short term. 

Exercise Isn’t a Replacement for Other Treatments for Mental Health If Needed


If you feel overwhelmed, unable to cope, or that stress is affecting how you function every day, consider connecting with a mental health professional. Whether it’s a social worker, pastoral counselor, marriage and family therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, or another trained professional, getting connected to a professional can be a first step to feeling better.


If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat