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Oct 10, 2022

Does Exercise Help Mental Health?

Most people know that exercise is good for them. It improves sleep, helps you maintain a healthy weight, and increases energy levels. What you may not know is that exercise has also been shown to have significant impacts on those with mental health issues, particularly depression and anxiety. Countless scientists, researchers, and universities have done studies on the effects that exercise has on those with depression and anxiety, and the results are both astounding and very encouraging. Some studies have even determined that exercise can be just as effective, if not more effective, as anti-depressant medications! So the short answer is yes—exercise does help mental health. Read on to learn about how it helps and how you can get on the road to better mental health with regular exercise.

The Science behind Exercise and Mental Health

You’ve likely heard about runner’s high or weight-lifting euphoria, but do you know that those are caused by the workout themselves? You don’t have to be in love with running or be obsessed with weight lifting to experience those mind-boosting benefits. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which makes your body release endorphins, which is essentially your body’s homemade antidepressant and releases serotonin, which lifts your mood.

Additionally, low-intensity exercise has been shown to stimulate and increase cell growth, which is incredibly important. Not only will cell growth help your brain to restructure itself into feeling positive emotions and break the habit of negative thought patterns, but it will improve your overall health and wellness. Scientists that studied individuals with depression found that the area of their brains that regulate their mood (the hippocampus) was actually physically smaller than those without depression. Increased nerve cell growth due to exercise will help the hippocampus grow and will improve nerve cell connections, reducing the symptoms of depression.

A study done by Duke University looked at several individuals who were diagnosed with depression. They were divided into three treatment groups: exercise, medication, and exercise & medication. After 16 weeks, all groups showed similar improvements in depression symptoms, all of which were considered significant.

The Positive Effects of Exercising on Mental Health

Not only is exercise biologically good for you when it comes to improving mental health, but it is a great way to improve your overall quality of life, including relieving your depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. People who exercise are generally more in tune with their overall wellness, and they tend to eat better, regulate sleep better, and live an overall healthier lifestyle. When your physical wellness improves, your mood improves. You will likely have a more positive outlook on life and a better appreciation for the life you were given.

It can be hard to push yourself to exercise when you’re experiencing a slew of negative emotions, but exercise can significantly improve even short-term struggles. If you’re feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, hopeless, insecure, or stressed, exercise can be a great way to cope and overcome those negative emotions and thoughts. Even physical pain from a disability, injury, or health issue can often be improved with appropriate exercise.

Exercise is an outlet—a place to go and something to do to keep your brain and body busy. It is a good distraction from the stress in your life and the mental health challenges you’ve been dealing with. Exercise brings about sharper memory, more clarity in thinking, improved focus, higher self-esteem, better sleep habits, more energy, and stronger mental and physical resilience.

Break the Cycle & Start Now

It can be hard to find the motivation to get started exercising when you’re dealing with an overwhelming mental health issue. In addition to challenging mental symptoms, depression can cause a variety of physical symptoms as well, such as problems sleeping, decreased energy, body aches, appetite irregularity, and a general lack of motivation. It can be hard to break the cycle of depression and struggling with mental and physical issues, but the sooner you can muster up the motivation to begin exercising, the sooner you’ll begin seeing the positive benefits of it. Every little bit helps, so even if you start with a five-minute walk around the block a few times a week, you’ll be making progress.

It’s hard to know exactly how little or how much exercise is necessary to see the improvements in mental health. However, most studies have had participants do low-intensity, low-impact exercises, like walking, biking, or light jogging. Just 30 minutes a day for 3 or 4 days a week will bring about great results. Be aware that it may take a few weeks to see the benefits of regular exercise, particularly when it comes to depression symptoms, but you will likely experience positive wellness effects within just the first few days.

The original research study done by Duke University did a follow-up study where they looked at the original participants for another six months after the initial investigation. They found that the participants who continued to exercise saw continued improvement in their depression, and only 8% of the exercise group relapsed, experiencing depression once again. In contrast, the medication-only group saw a relapse in 38% of participants and the medication plus exercise group had 31% relapse. The long-term effects of exercise for mental health are very encouraging. Taking an active role in improving your health can be quite powerful, and we hope you will experience this confidence boost as you begin exercising to improve your own mental health.

TrueCare Can Help

If you’re ready to get started exercising or want to learn more about the benefits of exercise on your mental health, get in touch with TrueCare today. We offer a variety of behavioral health services, including treatment of many mental health conditions. Contact us now or visit an TrueCare location near you.

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FAQs About the Effects of Exercise on Mental Health

How much does exercise improve mental health?

Mental health is a vast and inclusive topic that has a lot of different factors to consider. While many different methods can be effective at improving mental health, one of the most widely accepted is exercise. It’s simple, easy to begin, and it is extremely effective with many substantial benefits. While long-term exercise regimens and regular workouts are by far the most helpful at improving mental health, even just slight increases to your current activity level are helpful. The amount of improvement that you see in your mental health will vary based on several factors of the individuals’ lifestyle, including current health, current activity level, increase of activity level, and more. Someone who is mostly sedentary may experience immediate mental health improvements after just a short walk or a swim in the pool, while someone who is somewhat active to begin with may need to increase their exercise regimen a decent amount before seeing substantial improvements to their mental health. Generally speaking, exercise can help you not only increase your mood and minimize your stress, but the psychological effects of taking better care of yourself, boosting your self-confidence, taking your mind off of worries, increasing social interaction through exercise, and coping with negative feelings in a positive way are all incredible. Many of these things are not quantifiable, so it’s hard to say exactly how much your mental health will be improved from exercising, but there is no doubt that you will see and feel a difference if you stick with it.

Why does exercise improve mood?

Exercise stimulates our brain to release “feel-good chemicals,” such as endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and more. These chemicals, as a whole, improve our mood, increase our sense of well-being, improve our appetites, increase our sleep quality, and more. They can also help our bodies balance stress hormones, helping us cope with stresses and minimize the hormones and chemicals that wreak havoc on our mood and mindset. In addition, knowing you’re doing something good for your overall health can have a huge impact on your mental health, mood, and outlook on life.

How long does it take for exercise to improve depression?

Just as exercise can be used to boost the mood of someone who already has decent mental health, it is a hugely important tool in the fight against depression. One study actually found that exercise is just as effective as SSRIs (a type of antidepressant) at helping individuals cope with depression. Similar to common depression medications, exercise can take a few weeks to really “work” for those struggling, and it does take hard work to find an effective workout and stick to it. The same study mentioned above found that it takes between 4 and 6 weeks for the effects of the exercise to really impact depression, and the peak of effectiveness occurs after about 10 weeks of consistent exercise.

At TrueCare, we recommend that you speak to your provider first if you have not exercised for some time, or if you have medical conditions or concerns. Make sure your activity and its intensity are appropriate for your fitness level. Each week, adults need 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate-intensity physical activity and 2 days of muscle strengthening activity, according to the current Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. It might sound like a lot, but spread the exercise out over 4 – 5 days per week.

Children and adolescents aged 5-17 years should do at least 60 minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous intensity, mostly aerobic, physical activity throughout a week. Children should incorporate vigorous-intensity aerobic activities, as well as those that strengthen muscle and bone, at least 3 days a week.

There is not a set type of workout that is deemed most effective, as aerobic exercises (such as biking or running) and strength training have all seemed to work pretty evenly across the board. While even low amounts of exercise will bring about improvements in depression, the more exercise, the better. Physical activity has significant health benefits for hearts, bodies, and minds. It reduces symptoms of depression, anxiety and enhances thinking, learning, and judgment skill. Physical activity ensures healthy growth and development in all ages by improving overall well-being.

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What happens to the brain during exercise?

When you exercise, your brain begins to rapidly produce dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. These are chemicals that, simply put, make you feel happy. Endorphins, specifically, are our body’s own natural pain-killers. They can literally remove physical and emotional pain from our bodies by essentially flushing them out with these feel-good chemicals. Serotonin actually promotes and produces pleasure and happiness within our bodies. In fact, low levels of serotonin have been found in those with chronic depression. Serotonin affects our moods, emotions, sleep, and appetites, making it hugely important when it comes to our overall health. Dopamine helps to regulate motivation, memory, reward, and attention, which is why it is closely linked to exercise and the mental health benefits it brings. When all of these chemicals are released during a workout, we experience almost immediate mood improvements, decreased stress levels, and a more positive outlook. We become better equipped to handle stress and other negative emotions like anger or sadness, and as our brain adapts to these beneficial changes, it actually gets healthier and functions more effectively, improving our overall mental, emotional, and physical health.


Journal of Psychiatric Practice®

The information, including but not limited to text, graphics, images, and other material contained on this website, are for informational purposes only. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new healthcare regimen. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you read on this website.

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Jessica L. Randalls, PA
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