The surprising benefits that exercise can have on your mental health

Your time working out can have a positive impact on your mental health.
JoJo Whilden/AP/The Weinstein Company
  • 40 million Americans are affected by anxiety disorders.
  • 16.1 million adults experienced at least one major depressive episode in the last year.
  • For many, regular exercise can reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression, or at least help you deal with them.
  • It can also help you have a stronger immune system and help you sleep better, both of which can positively benefit your mental health.

If you’re one of the 40 million American adults affected by anxiety disorders or one of the 16.1 million adults who experienced at least one major depressive episode in the last year, then you might want to think twice before you skip your next workout.

For many exercising can have positive benefits, especially on mental health.

What does fitness have to do with mental health?

The connection between working out and mental health is clear: Exercise has been shown to improve mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function. Exercise has also been found to alleviate symptoms such as low self-esteem and social withdrawal.

But how can something as simple as going for a walk or doing yoga have such a positive impact on your mental health?

For starters, exercise releases endorphins, the body’s “feel-good hormones,” that can calm the mind and relax the body, clinical psychologist Jenny C. Yip, PsyD, ABPP told INSIDER.

“Exercise also increases blood circulation in the brain, which is linked to improvements in mood and attention. Spending as little as 20 minutes a day on exercise can actually increase your overall productivity, and decrease energy wasted from mental stress,” she said.

And just in case you need a little more convincing, there’s some pretty solid research around the use of exercise as part of an overall treatment plan for certain mental health conditions.

In fact, one of the most well-known researchers in the field of exercise and mental health, Dr. Michael Otto, explained in Psychology Today , that in addition to cognitive behavioral therapy and medication for the treatment of anxiety, there is increasing evidence for the value of exercise for treating both clinical anxiety disorders as well as more general difficulties with anxiety.


But what if you don’t have time to exercise or you’re too stressed to go to the gym? Obviously, you can decide if you need a mental health day from the gym, which is totally OK, but according to Yip, going to the gym can actually help you to feel better when you have a down day. It’s all about finding what works for you.

She shared a few additional ways that consistent exercise can help your mental well-being:

Frustration tolerance. Physical activity can be a healthy way to release frustration and anger. No matter what you do – kickboxing, yoga, or going for a run – the physical release of negative energy will leave you feeling refreshed. In fact, a study done in 2010, claims that exercise can have a preventative effect against the buildup of anger.

Reduced tension . When you’re stressed, your muscles contract, adding more tension to your already over-strained body. Exercise releases stored energy and allows muscles to return to a resting state. You may experience fewer backaches, tension headaches, arthritic joint pain … the list goes on.

Increased attention and productivity. When your mental plate is cleared from toxic stress and anxiety, you can have the needed space for more productive tasks, Yip told INSIDER. You’ll be more in tune with your body in order to recognize the signs of stress before it takes a toll on your physical and mental health.

Better sleep. T he more you exercise, the better you’ll sleep, at least according to several studies. When you’re not getting enough rest, you can’t perform at your best. Exercise can knock you out at the end of the night and help you sleep soundly. Just make sure you’re not exercising right before bedtime as it may work you up too much.

Stronger immune system. Ever notice that when you exercise consistently, you don’t get sick as often? Exercise lowers cortisol— the hormone responsible for your body’s fight-or-flight alarm. At chronically-elevated levels, it taxes your natural immune system. When you’re physically active, you might demonstrate more stamina and greater resiliency to fight discomfort, inside and out.

Increased confidence. Exercise increases self-efficacy, which is the confidence you have in your ability to accomplish a goal. It has been suggested that exercise may provide you with an effective mode through which self-efficacy can be enhanced based on its ability to provide you with a meaningful mastery of experience.


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