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The Mental Health Benefits Of Working Out

Whether you have a regular exercise routine or not, odds are you’re privy to the fact that regular exercise has a number of very visible benefits. No doubt, working out regularly can help carve toned arms, harden your hamstrings, and bulk your buttocks. 

But exercise also offers a slew of less visible but equally felt health perks. “There are a tremendous number of benefits of exercising,” says exercise physiologist and certified strength and conditioning coach Sharon Gam, Ph.D., C.S.C.S, who specializes in strength training for mental health. “But the benefits related to the mind and mental well-being are especially under-appreciated.” The fact is, the very real mental health benefits of exercise are why mental healthcare providers recommend it to folks with mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. 

Ahead, a complete breakdown of how exercise can support your mental well-being in the short- and long-term. Plus, tips for putting together a mental health-forward routine.  

  • ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Sharon Gam, Ph.D., C.S.C.S, is an exercise physiologist and certified strength and conditioning coach who specializes in strength training for mental health. Geri Topfer, R.Y.T., is a fitness professional, yoga teacher, and the founder of Kula for Karma, a national nonprofit focused on marginalized and underserved communities and first responders. Courtney Glashow, L.C.S.W., is a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and the founder of Anchor Therapy.

How Exercise Supports Your Short-Term Mental Health

Anyone who has ever had a runner’s high won’t be surprised to hear that there are immediate mental health perks to exercise. 

“When you exercise, the brain releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins,” explains fitness professional and yoga teacher Geri Topfer, R.Y.T., founder of Kula for Karma, a national nonprofit focused on marginalized and underserved communities and first responders. Known colloquially as nature’s pain killer, this flood of endorphins causes you to experience a sudden sensation of euphoria, she says. This sensation can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, depending on factors like how long or hard you exercised, your personal brain chemistry, and the like. 

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Endorphins aren’t the only mood-boosting chemicals that exercise releases immediately into your brain and/or bloodstream, though. Moving your body also causes the brain to release endocannabinoids, natural opioids, and neurotransmitters, which have also been linked to an anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) effect, says Gam. 

“Exercise also triggers the release of a protein called a brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, in the brain that scientists call “miracle-grow for your brain,” she adds. Research shows that the higher the levels of BDNF in the brain, the better folks’ cognitive and psychological states, which suggests a correlation between exercise and more sound mental health. 

Plus, if your workout contains strength training, there may be additional perks. Each time your muscles contract, they release proteins called ‘myokines.’ “Some of those myokine proteins travel up to your brain and activate receptors that boost mood and improve mental health,” says Gam. Actually, experts have started to nickname these proteins “hope molecules” because of the way they can make people feel more joyful, optimistic, open, and connected to others, she shares. 

In practice, the fact that exercising gives you an instant rush of feel-good hormones, proteins, and chemicals means that even if you only ever exercise one time in your life, you will reap some mental health relief following that one instance. It also means that there is some instant gratification and satisfaction anytime you set foot into the weight room or lace up your running sneakers. 

There Are Long-Term Mental Health Benefits To Exercise, Too

Exercise doesn’t just make your noggin feel nice in the hours right after you do it! “Establishing an exercise routine can improve your long-term mental well-being,” promises Gam. In fact, research has shown that exercise can be as effective as “gold standard” treatments (think medications and therapy) in treating symptoms of depression and anxiety and that it’s especially useful in combination with other treatments, she says. 

One 2016 review published in Journal of Affective Disorders found that physical exercise had a moderate to large effect on depression compared to no interventions. This effect was even more significant when used in conjunction with more traditional Western interventions, like therapy and antidepressant medications. Similarly, the researchers behind a 2018 review published in the journal BMC Health Services Research concluded that exercise is a viable long-term treatment option for anxiety. Notably, the researchers found that, while high-intensity exercise is more effective for soothing anxiety than lower-intensity exercise, both offer a positive net benefit on symptoms. 

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How does exercise have such a positive impact on mental health, exactly? Great question. “Exercise has been shown to work on the neurochemicals in the brain that are targeted by antidepressant and antianxiety medications,” explains Gam. The result is that individuals who exercise have higher levels of serotonin and dopamine than those who don’t, she says. 

Mental health professionals also find that consistent exercise helps people manage some of the daily struggles people often experience alongside anxiety and depression. “Exercise can help with your cognitive function, which decreases depressive symptoms such as brain fog,” notes psychotherapist Courtney Glashow, L.C.S.W., founder of Anchor Therapy. It can also improve sleep quality, which is commonly negatively impacted by mental health issues, she adds. 

How To Craft An Exercise Routine For Better Mental Well-Being 

Want your sweat to benefit both mind and body to the fullest? These tips will keep you on track.

1. Call On The Pros 

No matter your impetus for introducing exercise into your routine (or rethinking your current approach), talk to your healthcare practitioner ahead of time. They’ll offer specific recommendations for how (and how much) you can safely exercise, based on your current health status.

From there, consider checking in with a personal trainer for more specific tips. “There is a learning curve for all types of exercise types,” says Gam. “Seeking the professional help of a personal trainer, or joining a group exercise program, can help you climb that learning curve faster.” 

The right fitness professional will also give you form cues and programming advice to make sure that you’re not compromising your physical health with poor form or overtraining on your quest for mental well-being, she says. 

2. Start Small

“Starting a new exercise routine can be daunting so it’s important to make it realistic by doing it in small steps that are doable for you in your current mental health state,” says Glashow. Trying to go from zero to one hundred does not set you up for success, she says. Rather, it sets you up for feeling like a failure which can worsen your sense of self, especially if you’re already struggling. 

So if you’re new to movement, make a  manageable goal to start. For instance, rather than committing to going to the gym every day for 45 minutes, you might decide to go twice per week. Or, rather than vowing to go to boot camp class six days a week, commit to walking your dog every day.  “Once you’ve established a baseline routine and exercise schedule, and your baseline fitness level improves, you can gradually increase how long, how often, or how hard you’re exercising,” Gam says. 

And if you already have an exercise routine, just adhere to it the best you can. Keeping a consistent workout rhythm (we’re saying consistent, not perfect, for a reason here) can be a potent reminder of your strength—and that you have the tenacity to stick to other things, too. “It gives you proof that you can change your core self-identity and do hard things,” says Gam. 

3. Find a Movement Practice You Really Enjoy

To state the obvious: Committing—even once a week—to a type of exercise you don’t like isn’t going to do your happiness levels any favors. On the contrary, pushing yourself to engage in a movement modality you don’t like will probably make you even more stressed out, sad, or likewise. 

So, if your usual routine just doesn’t feel all that great, give yourself opportunities to try out a wide variety of movement practices. For instance, you might dabble in yoga and kickboxing, CrossFit and pilates, swimming and running. “Once you find an activity you actually enjoy using to get your body moving, it will be easier to stick to a schedule,” says Topfer. Sure, those HIIT classes might have an aesthetic benefit you don’t want to part with, but sometimes you need to move just for the pure joy of it!

Read More: ‘How HIIT Classes Rebuilt My Self-Confidence’

Bonus: If the movement practice you enjoy happens to be a form of group exercise, it’s also uniquely positioned to create opportunities for social connection and community-building that make way for even more experiences of joy, adds Gam. 

Exercise Isn’t The Only Answer 

Exercise can absolutely make you feel better in both the short-term and support your overall mental well-being in the long term, but it isn’t a replacement for professional mental healthcare. As the saying goes, exercise isn’t therapy; therapy is therapy. So if you’re experiencing any symptoms of anxiety or depression, make sure to talk to a mental health care provider. 

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