Five mental health benefits of exercise

Five mental health benefits of exercise: Image shows family exercising together
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Wondering what the mental health benefits of exercise are? Well, the main side effects are good ones; mental, physical, and cognitive improvements. These benefits can often be underrated as we usually focus on the physical impact. But when exercise is taken regularly, and with the right intensity, it can be incredibly powerful. 

Wherever you get your exercise; on a court, course, pitch, track, pool, or with an at home treadmill, when we do the right amount, it can have a brilliant impact on our psychological well-being.

Find out how some of the best fitness trackers can help support your wellbeing, or read on to discover the insights of chartered sport and exercise psychologist, Josephine Perry, as she gives Live Science her thoughts on how exercise improves our mental health and overall wellbeing.  

Five mental health benefits of exercise: Image of two women taking a break from a workout

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How does exercise help our mental health?

Exercise gives us structure, purpose, energy, and motivation. It is also effective at altering the way we process and respond to our emotions, reduces how much we overthink, and builds up an emotional resilience to stress. This helps reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, making us behave differently, boosting our self-esteem, and reducing our feelings of loneliness by becoming more social. Perry told Live Science, "As an exercise psychologist, I see these benefits all the time with my clients. Even a 20-minute session can make a huge difference to their day."

1. Reduces symptoms of depression

Depression is really tough to handle. It doesn’t just make you feel incredibly low in the periods you have it but long term it can lead to reduced quality of life and lower life expectancy as it influences the risk of developing chronic physical health conditions. The pharmaceutical options are not always suitable with fewer than half of patients taking anti-depressants having a meaningful clinical response. Exercise can be a valuable alternative approach. We have a full feature on how mental health affects physical health, if you need more information.

Firstly, exercise can help prevent depressive periods from kicking off. An interesting study in the American Journal of Psychiatry looking at over 33,000 people suggested that 12% of new depression cases could be prevented if the whole population exercised for at least one hour per week. If depression has already been diagnosed, then exercise has also been found to be an effective way to prevent and reduce symptoms for both severe and mild forms. In a study led by Duke University, researchers found exercise to be as effective as taking antidepressants, decreasing depressive symptoms in some by as much as 70%.

2. Helps with anxiety

Anxiety and Depression are often experienced alongside each other, and exercise has been found to be beneficial for anxiety too. A meta-analysis of 13 separate studies (reported in the Depression and Anxiety Journal) highlighted that those who do lots of exercise have better protection from developing the symptoms of anxiety than those who don’t. 

Scientists think this is because it impacts the threat systems in our bodies. The threat systems, led by the amygdala (the part of our brain associated with emotional processing) constantly scan for threats and when it spots one it floods the body with adrenaline and cortisol to help us physically respond with the most effective activity: Fight, Flight or Freeze. 

This usually means we get faster breathing rates, increased blood flow, a stomach that wants to empty itself, and very tight muscles. Exercise can then be an effective way to relax some of those muscles, regulate our systems, and distract our attention so both the physiological and psychological impact of anxiety reduces.

Five mental health benefits of exercise: Image shows woman working out

(Image credit: Getty)

3. Improves our behaviors

When the effects of exercise are studied in children, an area that is particularly interesting is how it improves their behaviors. Researchers reported in the book, ‘Psychology of physical activity: Determinants, wellbeing, and intervention’ have found that it significantly improves the way children behave so they cooperate better, are less aggressive, and take more responsibility for their actions. This improved behavioral regulation is helpful for everyone, especially those with any executive function deficits such as ADHD.

4. More connection, less loneliness

We all need to have a sense of belonging and connection to those around us to feel motivated and enthused. Without it, we can struggle with loneliness and what is known as anomie, a breakdown of social bonds. Exercise has been found to be a brilliant way to enhance connection. Regular physical activity gives a sense of structure and purpose so it is particularly valuable if going through a transition phase in life. The longer-term social benefits are great as well as when you are more active and engaged with others your quality of life rises which studies have found doesn’t just improve life satisfaction but actually means you live longer too.

Five mental health benefits of exercise: Image shows woman stretching arms behind her head

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5. Enhances our self-esteem

Your self-esteem comes from the discrepancy between how you wish you were and how you actually are. The closer you perceive you actually are to how you would like to be, the higher your self-esteem. Self-esteem is higher in those who regularly exercise as they are able to see they have high motor competence, good cardiovascular fitness, and a more positive self-perception. All these elements help them feel closer to their ideal image of themselves.

High self-esteem improves our overall mental health as it creates more positive self-perception, increased self-belief, and improved body image and self-image. With girls as young as five being found to talk about being dissatisfied with their body shape and size, it is essential to focus on self-esteem early. And we know doing this work early works. A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health that looked at the levels of exercise in nine to 11-year-olds found the amount they were exercising now could predict their self-esteem levels two years later.

How much exercise do we need to do to improve mental health?

The amount of exercise required to reap the mental health benefits is probably less than we would imagine. It’s around 150 minutes split around five times a week. A Health Psychology study found a dose-response effect, suggesting that some longer sessions will have a bigger impact so we shouldn’t just be sticking to five sets of 30 minutes, but mixing it up and trying different activities. The impact can be quick with a reduction in symptoms being seen even after just six weeks but it does need to be continued to ensure long-term improvement. 

Josephine Perry

Josephine is a chartered sport and exercise psychologist who works with athletes, actors, and those performing at high levels in the professions to help them perform better and enjoy the training and competition process more. She is the author of four books: Performing under Pressure, The Psychology of Exercise, I Can: The Teenage Athlete’s Guide to Mental Fitness and The 10 Pillars of Success.