Getting 30 minutes of moderate exercise each day can have a powerful boost on mental health. Researchers are learning more about how it works.
It may have something to do with a willingness to put up with short-term discomfort. Exercise trains people to tolerate it. It also helps them think more clearly when they are stressed.
1. Reduces Stress
Stress is a normal part of life, but too much can lead to depression and anxiety. Exercise helps to relieve stress. It increases levels of serotonin and other chemicals that improve mood and reduce the body’s production of stress hormones. It also improves sleep, which can help you feel calmer and more relaxed.
Exercise can also improve mental health by improving concentration and alertness. It can also distract you from negative thoughts and feelings, and can give you a sense of accomplishment when you achieve your goals. It is also a good way to socialize with friends and can even increase your self-esteem, especially if you exercise with others.
In fact, some studies have shown that exercise can be as effective at reducing depression as antidepressants. But unlike medications, which may take weeks or months to show an effect, exercise has the added advantage of not causing unwanted side effects.
Researchers are still learning exactly how exercise helps improve mental health, but they have some ideas. For example, relatively strenuous exercise can teach you to tolerate discomfort that would make most people nervous, and this may be why exercise is so effective at reducing anxiety. Similarly, the cognitive improvements that can come from exercise — like better focus and attention — may reduce your tendency to get anxious in stressful situations such as a big exam or new job.
2. Increases Self-Esteem
In addition to boosting feel-good endorphins, exercise can help you feel more confident. Whether you’re crushing your personal best time in the 100-meter dash or hitting the strides in a yoga class, the sense of accomplishment you feel will improve your self-esteem. As a result, it can help relieve anxiety and depression symptoms.
Research also shows that people with a higher level of self-esteem are more resilient to stress, allowing them to make better decisions and cope with difficulties. But, a word of caution: it’s easy to fall into the trap of equating your self-worth with how much you workout. That’s why it’s important to find an exercise routine that you actually enjoy.
For example, a social platform like lululemon Studio is a great way to connect with your friends while exercising. Plus, the app helps you share motivational messages with each other, making it fun and easy to stick with your workouts.
It’s important to remember that you don’t have to spend hours in the gym or force yourself through exercises you hate. Even small amounts of exercise, such as 30 minutes a day, can have significant mental health benefits. Just be sure to check with your doctor before beginning a new exercise routine. They’ll be able to recommend safe exercise levels based on your medical history and diagnosed conditions.
3. Improves Sleep
The benefits of exercise go far beyond trimming your waistline and building muscle. Regular physical activity relieves stress, improves memory, helps you sleep better at night and boosts your mood. And you don’t have to be a workout fanatic to reap these benefits, according to researchers.
Although the exact mechanisms of how exercise improves mental health aren’t fully understood, it is clear that working out and other physical activities can help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. Moreover, exercising may also prevent these disorders from returning once they are under control.
One explanation for this benefit is that when you exercise, your brain releases chemicals called endorphins, which make you feel good and lift your mood. It is likely that these same neurotransmitters can also block negative thoughts and distract you from your daily worries.
Furthermore, regular exercise is linked to the amount of time you spend in the slow-wave stage of non-REM sleep. This stage is crucial for immune functions, muscle recovery and hormonal balance. Insufficient slow-wave sleep can also increase your risk of mental health problems.
People with mental health disorders have a harder time sleeping than the general population. Inadequate sleep can cause irritability, fatigue and a lowered capacity to enjoy life. Exercise can reduce insomnia, and the positive feelings produced by exercise can help boost self-esteem and alleviate symptoms of mild depression and anxiety.
4. Reduces Anxiety
Anxiety is the body’s natural response to stress, and exercise is a proven mood booster that decreases symptoms of anxiety. In fact, therapists routinely access their clients’ physical activity levels and recommend exercise programs as part of mental health care.
While researchers don’t know exactly how exercise helps with anxiety, they do suspect it has to do with a combination of things. For one thing, regular workouts make us accustomed to short-term discomfort and increase our tolerance for it. That may help to dampen the hypersensitive, twitchy sensations caused by an overactive amygdala, which tend to trigger anxiety in people with certain mental health conditions.
Another possibility is that high-intensity exercises such as squats and pushups can desensitize people to the bodily symptoms of anxiety, such as shortness of breath and chest tightness. In addition, exercising regularly stimulates the brain to produce more serotonin, which is also known to improve mood.
It’s important to note that the anxiolytic effects of exercise are most apparent for those who stick with long-term, regular exercise programs. Even light exercise, like walking around the neighborhood instead of sitting at your desk all day, can make a difference. And it’s often easier to commit to a daily fitness program if you’re part of an exercise group or are being held accountable by a trainer, Firth says.