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How Exercise Positively Impacts Your Mental Health

Exercise isn’t just about building muscle and improving your aerobic capabilities or physical health. Movement also positively impacts your mental health, mood, and sleep, allowing you to better deal with symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, occupational stress, and more.

Our discussion here explores the top ten mental health benefits of exercise and determines how much movement you really need to do to reap these healthy rewards. (Spoiler alert: it isn’t as much as you think!)

The Top 10 Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

A person running along a road on a sunny day with fields on the right side to get the mental health benefits of exercise.

#1 Treats Mild-to-Moderate Depression

A somewhat recent study conducted by the brains over at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health concluded that walking for an hour a day or running for 15 minutes reduces the risk of severe depression by a huge 26%. In fact, consistent exercise can treat mild-to-moderate depression as effectively as prescribed medication! Not to mention it decreases the likelihood of relapsing.

Movement is a wonderful depression buster for the following reasons:

· It reduces inflammation in the brain.

· It promotes neural growth, eliciting feelings of calm.

· It releases endorphins (the feel-good chemical).

· And so much more!

#2 Relieves Stress and Tension

The endorphins emitted during exercise also help relieve tension and stress, working as an anti-anxiety treatment. Engaging in movement physically and mentally doubles these mental health benefits of exercise.

If you work out regularly already, do you zone out during them? If so, try to zone back in (i.e., engage mentally). Try noticing the sensation of your feet on the ground while running or consciously consider the muscles you’re working while weightlifting. Not only will this improve your form, but it will also stop negative thoughts in their tracks.

#3 Improves Memory and Focus

We’ve mentioned endorphins a couple times already, but it’s for a very good reason. These same endorphins work to sharpen your memory and concentration, letting you focus on the task at hand without constant distraction. As you kickstart your movement-inclusive lifestyle, you’ll notice a positive shift in your work performance and productivity, further enhancing the mental health benefits of exercise.

#4 Reduces Symptoms of ADHD

Exercise of any kind is perhaps one of the most effective ways to ease symptoms of ADHD and boost mood, memory, concentration, and motivation. As soon as you start moving, your brain’s serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine levels skyrocket, contributing to the dramatic reduction of ADHD symptoms. Consider it similar to the positive effects of Ritalin.

#5 Unsticks Your Nervous System

Your nervous system tends to respond to trauma and PTSD by immobilising itself. So, focusing on your body while exercising can help “unstick” yourself. The trick is to not let your mind wander and zero in on the physical sensations awarded you throughout your work out.

To truly reap this benefit in particular, we recommend exercises that involve both your arms and legs, such as swimming, running, walking on sand, dancing, sailing, rock climbing, white-water rafting, and skiing.

#6 Boosts Self-Esteem

The human body was designed to move. Therefore, allowing yourself time to exercise every day is the biggest investment in both your body and mind. Restricting movement because “you don’t have time” simply shouldn’t be an option. Your body, self-esteem, and mental health will absolutely thank you for it. People talk about the runner’s high for a reason.

#7 Improves Sleep

A fox asleep on some wooden planks in the forest, obtaining the mental health benefits of exercise.

Regular sleep patterns enhance focus, improve mood, support proper physical functioning, and so much more. Luckily, even short bursts of activity in the afternoon or morning (not right before bed!) allow you to reap this one of the top mental health benefits of exercise.

If you’d rather do a little something before getting into bed, stick to relaxing movements like stretching or yoga flows only.

#8 Strengthens Resilience

One of our favourite mental health benefits of exercise is that it can help you cope with emotional challenges in a healthy way. After all, hard times are inevitable. Regardless of your current situation, adversities will strike at one point or another. Thankfully, regular exercise ensures you won’t stray to unhealthy coping mechanisms and reduces the physical impacts of sky-high stress levels.

#9 Prevents or Slows Cognitive Decline in Older People

Medical advancements and improvements mean an increased life expectancy, culminating in a typically older population. While this is obviously good news, it has also brought about more elderly living with dementia and cognitive decline.

As per a 2014 study on the effects of physical activity and Alzheimer’s disease, exercise is a protective factor against such progressive diseases. Fortunately, it also helps delay further decline in people who already have the disease.

Participating in daily physical activity lowers the elderly’s risk of dementia and depression by 20% to 30%.

#10 Boosts Mood

As we’re sure you’ve guessed by now, all the feel-good chemicals released during (and after) exercise improve your mood, and thus, benefit your mental health. It simply doesn’t get better than that.

So, How Much Physical Do You Need to Do to Get These Mental Health Benefits of Exercise?

You might be thinking that you need to spend hours in a gym or out on a run to get all these wonderful mental health benefits of exercise. But you’re wrong! You’ll be delighted to know that even just 15 minutes a day can give you these advantages.

Once you’ve started adding in a bit of movement every day, we can almost guarantee you’ll start wanting more. And yes, your body will handsomely reward you for it! Give it a try; you’ll undoubtedly be overjoyed by the physical and, most importantly (in this case), mental results.

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