Everyone knows that exercise is good for your physical health. Improving your fitness, benefitting your general health, and keeping your weight in check are all proven pluses to working out. But did you know that exercise can help your mental health too?
In fact, exercise can make a huge difference to your mental health is a whole range of different ways — and can particularly help people struggling with anxiety and stress.
In this post, we’ll be looking at what exercise can do for your mental health and exploring the many positive benefits that getting active can have.
Related: Ten Ways to Stay Active as We Age
1. Exercise releases “feel-good” chemicals in your body
One of the main reasons people cite exercise as being good for your mental health is because it releases “feel-good” chemicals in your body — improving your mood and overall happiness. You’ve probably heard of them: endorphins.
It’s not just endorphins that physical activity stimulates the release of either — serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are all also released when you do exercise. Each of these brain chemicals (known as neurotransmitters) plays an important part in regulating your mood and boosting your overall wellbeing.
As well as helping you to feel happy, energized, and motivated, these neurotransmitters can help to alleviate the feelings and symptoms associated with anxiety and depression.
2. Exercise promotes mindfulness
Exercise can help to promote mindfulness; increasing your ability to be fully present in the moment, rather than zoning out or letting your mind wander.
If you’re regularly feeling overwhelmed by everything around you and your own thoughts, then mindfulness can have a positive influence on your mental health.
Exercise can help you to achieve this mindfulness. Concentrate on how your body feels and the rhythm of your movements as you exercise — the movement of breath in and out of your body.
Think of regular activity as an investment in your mind, body, and soul: by being truly present in the physical sensations in your body, you can achieve a zen-like mindset which will benefit your mental health.
By practicing these techniques, you’ll find yourself focusing on the task at hand, rather than getting distracted by worries and negative thoughts. You might not realize it right away, but a repetitive exercise that you can lose yourself in — like swimming or run — will promote feelings of calmness within you.
3. It relieves the physical symptoms of stress & other issues
If you have ever suffered from stress or a similar type of poor mental health, you’ll know that these problems don’t just manifest themselves in how you feel or think; they impact your body and physical fitness too.
For example, if you are feeling stressed or anxious, you will find that your muscles are often extremely tight, leaving you feeling tense, achy and painful. These feelings can affect your neck, back, shoulders and give you tension headaches. They may cause stomach problems, heartburn or even make your chest hurt. Of course, all of this will make you feel even worse.
Exercise tackles these physical manifestations of your poor mental health, by increasing the blood flow to your muscles, which keeps them oxygenated and working well, as well as alleviating muscle tension. It also helps to combat other stress symptoms, such as high blood pressure.
The great news is that you don’t even need to do an intense workout to reap the benefits of exercise on your stressed body; even a gentle swim or peaceful yoga class will get your blood pumping, warm up those tense muscles, and help to relax your stressed body.
4. An exercise regime brings more structure to your life
It sounds like such a little thing, but having structure and routine in your life can make a big difference to your mental health — and exercise can contribute to this.
When you’re struggling with poor mental health, it’s easy to feel like you aren’t in control — and this, in turn, can increase your levels of stress and anxiety. It also means you’re less likely to find a routine or do the things that you normally do because you’re feeling so out of sorts. Everything can feel very unstable and chaotic.
Adding an exercise schedule to your life brings more stability and routine to your life, which can contribute to you feeling more in control.
It doesn’t have to be much — a 10-minute yoga sequence when you wake up, or a short jog after work will do. But by sticking to this exercise regime, you’re giving yourself some structure, as well as regular self-affirmation and confidence by achieving goals. And this can go a long way in providing you with the strength and belief to work through stuff.
5. Exercise improves your sleep quality & quantity
As you’ve probably figured out already if you’ve ever done a workout, jog, or fitness class in the evening (or even at any point during the day), you sleep like a log that night. But how does this impact your mental health?
Well, sleep and mental health are closely linked; mental health problems like stress and anxiety can cause poor sleep and sleep deprivation. And likewise, sleeping badly can have a knock-out effect on your mental health, exacerbating feelings of stress, anxiousness, and depression.
Even just doing 15 minutes of aerobic exercise can improve the quality and quantity of your sleep and regulate your sleeping patterns. This is because exercise tires you out and temporarily increases your core temperature; the resulting drop afterward makes you feel sleepy and ready for bed, helping you to get a good night’s rest.
As you can see, exercise can do a lot for your mental health. Regular exercise can help to tackle the mental, emotional and physical symptoms and manifestations of poor mental health, benefitting you in all sorts of ways.