How Exercise Benefits Mental Health

How Exercise Benefits Mental Health

Many of us have gotten the suggestion from our healthcare providers to exercise more. It is well known that regular exercise is important for physical health. You might be surprised to learn that sometimes mental health care providers also encourage their clients to exercise. There is a lot of evidence that exercise can help manage problems such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, etc. In my practice I work mostly with older adults and often encourage exercise as there is evidence that it is one of the best things you can do to maintain your brain health.

Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

  • Biological:
    • When we take a walk, go to a yoga class, or something similar, our body produces its own “feel good” hormones (endorphins and enkephalins). These hormones can help us feel like we can manage problems that other times feel overwhelming.  They can also help us feel more energized for the rest of the day.
    • Exercise also boosts neurotransmitters (dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin) that improve concentration, focus, motivation, and mood.
    • Exercise increases our body’s “sleep drive”, an important aspect being able to fall asleep and being able to stay asleep.
  • Psychological:
    • When we fully engage in exercise it can give us a break from some of the unhelpful mental loops we can get stuck in. It can give us break from self-judgements, thinking about events from the past again and again, or hopeless thoughts about the future.
    • Some types of exercise, such as Yoga and Pilates, have specific elements that increase relaxation and have a calming effect which can help reduce anxiety.
    • After exercise, people often experience a feeling of accomplishment which improves mood and can increase self-esteem.
  • Social:
    • Exercising with someone else or in a group increases social interaction, which benefits mood.

Over time these immediate benefits build and have long-term positive impacts on mental health.  A recent study found that participants saw benefits to their mental health with 2 hours of exercise per week.  The catch of course is how to get started, especially when you feel the low motivation common to depression or too overwhelmed with anxiety to get moving.

Tips on Getting Started with Exercise

  • Set small goals for yourself rather than overwhelm yourself with large goals. If you have limited activity now, set a manageable goal such as a regular 5-minute walk.  Once you master that goal, pat yourself on the back for the accomplishment and then set another goal that builds on what you’ve done (turn that walk into a jog or increase the time you walk).  Continue this process until you reach your larger goal.
  • Set up a time to exercise with a friend or family member. Most of us are more likely to follow-through on an activity if we have made a commitment to someone else.  Make sure it’s with someone you enjoy spending time with, so you  also reap the benefits of positive social interaction.
  • Take the time to notice the impact of exercise on how you feel. Are you experiencing that “feeling of accomplishment”?  If yes, that’s great and you should keep it up!  If you are not, then try something else.  Some people love hiking and not yoga.  Some people really enjoy dancing, but not running.  It’s important to find an exercise that suits you.

This week’s post is a guest blog from UCSF Psychologist Dr. Christina Garrison-Diehn.