The Mental Health Benefits Of Exercise Explained

Exercising on a regular basis can do wonders for your body. Whether it's by running or lifting weights, staying physically active every week provides a range of physical health benefits. It can support your mental health as well, but these perks aren't as widely known as the physical ones. After all, the brain isn't a muscle that you can strengthen like the heart. The mental benefits can also be thought of as emotional benefits, since they ultimately involve how we think and feel.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), mental health "includes our emotions, psychology, and social well-being." But just as there are physical health problems, mental health disorders and other conditions exist, too. Some are temporary, lasting minutes to hours, but others can last days or weeks.

Several organizations that center on mental health claim that exercise, even at a moderate level, can combat stress, depression, and anxiety. The question is, how? How exactly can power walking around the neighborhood or working in the garden improve our thoughts, emotions, and overall mood? It all has to do with how the chemicals in our brains respond to exercise.

It can eliminate stress

We've all experienced stress at some point in our lives. Sometimes it's work or school related. Sometimes it involves our kids, relatives, friends, or spouse. Other times financial situations, life pressures, and mere adulting can create that "My head is about to explode" feeling. It's not always avoidable — but sometimes it is, even if you can't dodge the triggers.

When you exercise, your body produces neurotransmitters called endorphins, the well-known "feel-good" chemical. Endorphins are the body's natural pain relievers. Stress is a hormone, too. When you experience unpleasant circumstances that you can't control, the adrenal glands produce stress hormones, called cortisol. This is what causes your heart rate and blood pressure to rise, as Premier Health explains.

So you basically have endorphins from exercise and cortisol from stress, duking it out in the ring that is your brain. Although they're both hormones, endorphins win the belt because they suppress cortisol and other stress hormones, according to Healthline. Both of these hormones can be detected in the blood. If you were to have your blood tested after exercise, your endorphin levels would be measureable (via Amy Myers MD).

It can combat depression

The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 280 million children and adults in the United States are clinically depressed. The most common treatment options include medication and talk therapy. However, getting these isn't always straightforward. Cost may be an obstacle for some people. Others may be apprehensive about taking medication or talking about their depression. That's where exercise comes in.

Dr. Michael Craig Miller, the assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, compares exercise to medication as a treatment option. He asserts that physical activity alone can be just as effective as antidepressants for individuals with mild depression (via Harvard Health Publishing).

He adds that the brain of a depressed person actually changes after exercise. "In people who are depressed ... the hippocampus in the brain — the region that helps regulate mood — is smaller," he said. "Exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression."

Another perk to exercise is that it can prevent depression from rearing its ugly head in the first place. The American Psychological Association shared the results of a study involving more than 191,000 participants that prove exercise can ward off depression. The results revealed that approximately 20% of individuals in the study reduced their depression risk after exercising throughout the week.

It can treat anxiety

Anxiety is another common mental health issue that can be treated with exercise. The National Institute of Mental Health states that about 31% of adults in the United States experience anxiety at some point in their lives. In some cases, it can lead to depression, according to PsychCentral. But Dr. John R. Ratey, a psychiatrist and an associate clinical professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has witnessed the positive effects of exercise on an anxious mind.

Ratey shared his findings in a Harvard Health Publishing article. According to his firsthand experience, exercise can serve as a distraction for anxiety triggers and reduce muscle tension — a common side effect of anxiety. And since physical activity raises your heart rate, it changes the chemistry of the brain by creating anti-anxiety neurochemicals like serotonin, which is among the "happy hormones." Think of serotonin as your endorphin's sibling.

How much exercise is required for mental health benefits?

While physical activity, in general, can benefit the mind, the amount of time you spend exercising plays a role in those benefits. A few minutes a day is a great start, and you'll certainly feel a difference. But if you want optimum results, doctors have a specific amount of exercise in mind. 

Mayo Clinic recommends getting at least 30 minutes of exercise, three to five days a week, to improve symptoms of anxiety, stress, or depression. The results of the aforementioned study shared by the American Psychological Association indicated that 18% of the participants lowered the risk of depression after 75 minutes of brisk walking. 25% lowered it after 2.5 hours of the same activity.

Like to be on your feet? Power walk or jog around the neighborhood. Prefer to be seated? Hop on a bike instead and ride a few miles through a scenic bike trail. You can also do some rowing at your local gym, on the water if you have a boat, or at home if you have a rowing machine. Other exercise options that can help ward off depression, stress, and anxiety include swimming, dancing, disc golfing, pilates, and jumping rope. Just find something you enjoy and can do for at least 30 minutes, several times a week.