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Exercise and mental health: a look at the mind-body connection

July 15, 2022 - 18 min read

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The relationship between exercise and mental health

How does exercise improve mental health?

What type of exercise is the best?

Don’t overdo it

Leverage the power of the mind-body connection

We have all heard that we need exercise. So why aren’t you motivated to exercise?

Despite your best intentions, you might have a tragic case of “I’ll do it tomorrow” syndrome. You put it off until you “feel like it.” But then tomorrow arrives, and you still don’t feel like it.

Why? There could be many causes. Perhaps exercise is unfamiliar to you, or you haven’t found a way to make it fit into your schedule. Maybe you aren’t a morning person, but your evenings are too packed to sneak in an hour at the gym. 

Whatever the case, it’s time to address it. Otherwise, you’re missing out on its many health benefits. Exercise can make you feel energized, improve your confidence, and help you lead a healthier lifestyle. And a recent study reported in the New York Times found that even the healthiest diet won't help you live longer or prevent disease without also incorporating exercise.

It can even boost your mental health. It’s been known to increase focus and attention, fight anxiety, and act as a natural treatment against depression. For me, I show up better in my life when I get regular exercise. Exercise helps moderate my mood and keep a more positive outlook, enough so that my family gladly prioritizes my exercise time.

So let’s explore this connection between exercise and mental health.

 

The relationship between exercise and mental health

The impact of exercise on mental health has been a hot topic for research. The science is clear: Regular exercise can improve mental and emotional well-being and lower your risk of mental illness. In fact, the CDC says you can experience benefits for your mental and physical health with as little as 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day.

Here are some of the benefits of exercise on mental health. It can:

Exercise programs are just one potential intervention for mental health issues. For people with more severe mental health conditions, exercise is a complement to, not a replacement for, additional care. Seek out psychotherapy, psychiatry, or other types of mental health care if you have symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Mental health professionals may prescribe exercise for mental health issues if they feel it’ll improve your situation. 

For many of us, we simply need help forming healthy habits. Outside support, such as from a coach or group, can help you understand your why and hold you accountable to make consistent progress toward your goals. 

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How does exercise improve mental health?

The effects of exercise are hardly magic. There’s a direct relationship between your body and brain, so taking care of one helps take care of the other.

Here are the primary mechanisms through which exercise leads to better mental health:

1. Happy hormones

Through regular physical activity, your body releases chemicals such as dopamine and endorphins. These hormones are responsible for most of the emotional benefits of exercise due to their capacity to create joy. That’s why they’re sometimes called “happy hormones.” They’re also known to induce euphoria in athletes, creating the phenomenon called “runner’s high.”

Group-of-women-running-together-at-park-exercise-and-mental-health

2. Suppressed stress

In addition to producing happy chemicals, exercise reduces your body’s stress hormone levels. This means less cortisol and adrenaline running through your body, lowering your risk of chronic stress and the accompanying long-term health risks. 

This also has the happy side effect of improving your sleep. Less stress, coupled with a physically tired body, will help you get much-needed shuteye.

3. Strengthened circadian rhythm

Physical activity can be as effective as prescription sleep meds — especially if you do it outside. Outdoor workouts expose you to natural light, which signals your circadian rhythm when wind down. 

Plus, when you sleep well, you get to enjoy a whole other set of health benefits:

  • Stronger immune system
  • Lowered risk of diabetes and heart disease
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improved mood
  • Better decision-making
  • Increased attention and focus

4. Mind-body connection

Every time you move a muscle, sensory receptors send information to your brain about what’s happening. Doing this intentionally through exercise helps your mind become more aware of your body’s position in space, increasing your physical self-awareness.

And as you develop this body awareness, your perception of yourself changes. You’ll start identifying with the movements of your chosen exercise. For example, if you’re a long-distance runner, you might perceive yourself as having grit and resilience, which are qualities necessary to train for and complete a marathon or other grueling physical feats.

5. The power of achievement

A healthy fitness routine usually involves setting goals. Whenever you reach a personal milestone or beat a personal record, you’ll motivate yourself to achieve the next one.

This sense of accomplishment can benefit your mental health. People who set realistic goals, in general, tend to have higher self-motivation, self-esteem, independence, and confidence. It also gives them a sense of purpose and something to strive for.

6. Social support

If you attend an exercise class or work out with a friend, the social aspect will enhance the mental health benefits of your workout. 

Social interaction, on its own, can boost your mental health through the release of dopamine, which helps with stress, anxiety, and depression. Couple these benefits with physical activity, and you’ll maximize your mental health benefits. 

Social accountability can also improve your motivation to complete your workout. If you compete in an amateur soccer league, you’ll participate more often for fear of letting your team down. This ensures you receive your dose of physical and social activity.

7. Defuse tension

Physical activity can offer similar effects to mindfulness, helping you relax and let go of stress. 

Consider mindful breathing as an example. This practice involves intense focus on your inhales and exhales, which helps calm your mind and let go of stress. Yoga is a workout that follows similar principles and incorporates mindful stretching.

This makes it a great exercise for reducing anxiety and stress. Here, in addition to your breath, you focus on the feelings in your muscles and tendons. Some areas might stretch easily, and others might be tenser. 

This kind of attention to your body movements can help you identify pain and release unwanted tension caused by stress.

What type of exercise is the best?

The best physical exercise is the one you do consistently. Whether it’s a daily walk or weekly yoga class, consistency will help ensure you always experience some of the mental health benefits of exercise.

Yoga-instructor-with-hands-clasped-teaching-class-exercise-and-mental-healthThat said, certain workouts are better for treating specific mental health conditions:

Aerobics

Aerobic activities, like running, swimming, cycling, and walking, are great ways to increase your heart rate, boost your cardiovascular system, and exercise for your mental health. In a study of 185 university students, people who regularly performed aerobic exercise reported lower anxiety and better overall well-being.

Yoga and tai-chi

Mindful stretching is known for its stress-reducing properties. These exercises are low impact and put minimal pressure on muscles and joints, making them safe for all ages and fitness levels. They’re also inexpensive and require no special equipment.

Team sports

Team sports add extra accountability and social interaction to physical activity. They can also help you improve in a number of other areas:

  • Executive functioning and creativity
  • Teamwork
  • Social responsibility

Plus, they might be more fun than other exercises.

Don’t overdo it

There’s such a thing as too much exercise — especially if you’re just starting. It’s possible to injure yourself if you try to do too much too fast.

midsection-of-girl-showing-her-signed-arm-cast-exercise-and-mental-healthTry setting SMART fitness goals to avoid self-harm. SMART stands for goals that are:

  • Specific. What’s your desired outcome? “I want to be fit” isn’t good enough here — it’s important to paint a clear picture. Here’s an example of a specific goal: “I want to do pushups on my toes.”
  • Measurable. How will you measure your progress toward your goal? For pushups, you might count the number of reps. One pushup on your toes might not be good enough, but 20 could be a success.
  • Achievable. If you’ve never done pushups before, it’s safe to assume you won’t be doing 20 within the week. Be realistic about how long it will take based on your current abilities. Setting smaller goals — baby steps — will help you reach your goal.
  • Relevant. Does this goal fit within the overall picture of your life? This is the “why” of your goal. In this case, perhaps your pushups are a way to improve your mental health.
  • Time-bound. Your goals should have a deadline. You don’t want to move too fast, but a realistic deadline will help keep you motivated: “I want to do 20 pushups on my toes in three months.”

Signs of overexertion

It’s important not to let your love of exercise teeter into addiction. When this happens, your workout habits hurt your mental health rather than help. 

Here are some signs your physical activity is coming from an unhealthy place:

  • You spend all of your free time working out. It’s normal to spend a few hours a week at the gym, but two hours a day borders on obsessive.
  • You’re always tired. Exhaustion is a common symptom of working out too much. Your body needs time to rest in between workouts. If you’re consistently putting stress on your body, you can injure yourself or become sick. Don’t push yourself too hard, and make sure you schedule rest days.

Tired-young-business-woman-with-a-headache-using-laptop-exercise-and-mental-health

  • Your life revolves around your workout schedule. If you always cancel plans or neglect relationships in favor of going to the gym, you might have an unhealthy relationship with exercise.
  • You feel obligated to work out and guilty if you don’t. Too many negative emotions associated with exercise could signify an unhealthy workout regimen. Watch out for feelings of guilt, shame, or anxiety when you’re unable to exercise. These can easily turn into mental disorders and hurt your quality of life.
  • You’re spending most of your day thinking about what you need to eat. Eating nutritious foods is an important part of any fitness plan. But if you’re constantly thinking about how to find a “healthier” option or what you’re going to need to eat for dinner, you might be approaching a disordered eating territory. Sure, some foods are more nutritious than others, but all food is fuel. 

Leverage the power of the mind-body connection

Exercise and mental health have an intimate connection. One affects the other, and the smallest amount of exercise can impact your mood.

Everything from weight training to a daily walk can help increase your energy and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression (bonus points if you can do a more intense workout). And even better if you can do it with a friend.

It’s important to start slow. But with patience and dedication, you’ll see results in no time.

Let BetterUp help you on your journey. Our coaches can help you find work-life balance, become more confident in meetings, or be a better listener. No matter your goal, we will help you stay motivated and accountable.

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Published July 15, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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