7 Ways Exercise Improves Mental Health

{Rancho Cucamonga, California}

Not a day goes by where I don’t ask myself the following question: Should I, or shouldn’t I go to the gym today?

You don’t have to be lectured by a doctor to know that exercise is good for you.  We all recognize that exercise provides positive benefits on our overall health and mood, yet do we religiously incorporate physical activity into our regular routines?  Trust me, even as a physician who preaches the importance of incorporating non-medication alternatives such as exercise into wellness plans, I empathize with the struggle to prioritize physical activity in our busy schedules.  Yet, if you’re interested in even more specific ways that exercise can enhance your mental health, I compiled a list of information that I often provide to my patients:

1.  Target your mood.  Exercise has been shown to be just as effective as antidepressants for the treatment of depression.  A study led by Dr. James Blumenthal found that an exercise program provided equal benefits in mood as regular doses of Zoloft (a commonly prescribed antidepressant).  Also, a Cochrane review (which is a systematic review of all high quality research relevant to a specific research question) found that exercise is associated with a greater reduction in depression symptoms compared with no treatment.

2.  Alleviate anxiety.  I can attest to this, for my ability to manage stress (especially when in clinic) declines after missing several workouts, though my coworkers say I mask my anxiety fairly well (which is hard for me to believe!).  Aerobic exercise has been shown to be an effective treatment for several anxiety disorders.  One study found that exercising at 70-90% of maximum heart rate for 20 minutes 3 times a week has been shown to significantly reduce anxiety sensitivity.

3.  Boost concentration.  Exercise elevates the brain’s levels of dopamine and norephinephrine, which are important chemicals involved with focus, attention, and our executive functions (planning, analyzing, prioritizing, organizing, initiating, and completing tasks/activities).  Some people with ADHD are able to manage their symptoms with exercise alone, though many find the ideal treatment regimen includes medication plus exercise.  For more helpful info, I often refer my patients to ADDitudeMag.COM.

4.  Sleep better.  Though the most common method utilized to treat insomnia is via pharmaceuticals, I am always on the lookout for ways to improve sleep without the risks of dependency and tolerance that many sleep aids have.  Regular, physical exercise raises core body temperature, which can benefit the initiation and maintenance of sleep.    

5.  Improve heart health.  People living with mental illness tend to have higher risks of cardiovascular disease.  Over 50% of adults with serious mental illness are obese.  Among individuals who are overweight, losing 5% of body weight can improve risk significantly and one way to accomplish this is through lifestyle modifications such as increased exercise.

6.  Connect with others.  Social connectivity has been found to be one of the factors that contributes to happiness and well-being.  Whether you have a walking buddy, join an exercise class, or join a meet-up group for hiking, etc, physical activity may provide an opportunity to socialize and engage with others.

7.  Sharpen your memory.  Studies on exercise and prevention of dementia were mostly limited to studies performed on rats, but I did find one promising study which found that older adults involved in a 6-month aerobic training program positively impacted cognitive functioning.

I often tell my patients that they don’t have to be marathon runners to experience the benefits of exercise.  The most important aspect to keep in mind when choosing your preferred form of exercise is sustainability — your chosen form of exercise should be something congruent with your interests, goals, and can be easily incorporated into your routine, whether it’s walking, running, playing basketball, yoga, dancing, etc.

Thought of the Day:  Which type of exercise have you found to improve your mental health?


Photo by Marlon Santos

10 thoughts on “7 Ways Exercise Improves Mental Health

  1. Swimming.
    When I start my first lap I feel like an aquatic squirrel. (round and round in my water wheel).
    When I finish my last lap I feel like a wet squirrel.
    (But soooooo relaxed)

      • I’ve possibly learned swimming before walking. Spent my childhood years by (in) the sea. 🏊 give it a try. Really cleanses your head. And it’s cheaper than therapy. 😎

  2. A productive and efficient gym session helps improve my mental health. Being a personal trainer I completely agree with you on all of these points. An extended period without gym or any type of strenuous exercise for me brings my stress levels way up.

    • as a personal trainer, i’m sure fitness comes a bit easier to incorporate into your regular routine! Or not?…focusing on others’ fitness may make it a bit more difficult to focus on your own fitness sometimes? thanks for the comment Jake!

  3. Walking/jogging with my dog after work helps me wind down from a stressful work day and also has health benefits for my pup too! More recently, I’ve been going to the gym at least 3X’s a week with my husband & brother, which targets all the points you mentioned 🙂 The social connectivity of working out with family is a huge benefit & motivates me go to gym and maintain my goals, and I’ve also noticed my sleep has been better too! The more I integrate exercise into my routine, the more physically and mentally healthy I feel. Thank you for the validating and encouraging information to help me keep up with my exercise regimen!

    • that’s wonderful that you have a fam who values working out just as much as you! and your pup must be happy too going on regular walks! glad to hear you’re experiencing multiple benefits that exercise can provide 🙂

  4. I’m curious if the loooong comment I wrote here last week went into your “moderation” or (more likely) your Spam folder?

    My commenting ability suddenly stopped working on May 28th, which had never happened before. I didn’t realize it wasn’t working until later that day and on some other blogs I commented on my replies went into their Spam folders or needed to be moderated.

    There’s a happy ending to this ramble – I asked for help and a WordPress “Happiness Engineer” and an Askimet staffer fixed the problem. Yay!

    Hope you are having a beautiful vacation!!

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