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The Quintessential Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

May 1, 2023
Exercise is a powerful tool for improving mental health. Discover how squeezing 30 minutes of exercise into your day can change your perspective and benefit your mental well-being.
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By Susie Reiner, PhD, CSCS, EP-C

You might feel like you can conquer the world after a great workout—that triumphant feeling isn’t just in your head. Both aerobic and resistance exercises hold incredible power in shifting your mood, energy, brainpower, and more. Here we’ll explore the research-backed mental health benefits of exercise that will brighten your day and life.

1. Sweating Towards a Better Mood

A good mood is only one workout away. At least, that’s what the research says. Researchers have long debated the mechanisms behind the phenomena—endorphins, new neural connections, endocannabinoids (natural morphine-like chemicals), or other molecules. However, the consensus is that exercise boosts your mood and puts you in a positive mind. 

Research shows continuous aerobic training and HIIT workouts can offer similar mood-boosting benefits. While sticking to the same intensity during the training session provided a pleasurable workout, HIIT led to more enjoyment (a more permanent feeling). Bumping up the intensity of your activities in short bouts may help you enjoy the exercise more, which can have a lasting effect on your day. The same is valid for resistance training, with several studies showing its efficacy in improving mood across age groups. 

2. More Energy and Motivation For Life

It seems counterintuitive that something that makes you tired gives you more energy. With exercise, however, that’s the case. Exercise improves muscular strength and endurance and makes the cardiovascular system more efficient, so more oxygen and nutrients are delivered to your tissues. The result: you gain a pep in your step during all of your daily activities. 

The energy doesn’t just change in your physical self. How you view yourself, and your accomplishments with exercise can boost your motivation. Your workouts help to build self-confidence and self-efficacy, or the belief that you can accomplish a task. As you build up your skills, the feeling of competence is a significant motivation boost. Not only do you feel better about yourself, but you’re ready to tackle larger life challenges with resilience.

3. Take a Mental Break From Your Day 

Exercise is the ultimate distraction from your problems. After all, it’s hard to think about anything else when you’re reaching the end of an interval on the treadmill or your last rep under a barbell. Like mindfulness and meditative practices, exercise takes you out of your everyday thoughts. 

If the workout itself isn’t distracting enough, your workout environment can help facilitate this relaxation response. Adding pleasurable activities like being outdoors, scenic routes on cardio machines, listening to music, or even watching television can distract you from any aches or pains you may feel and creates a positive workout experience. 

A bonus: setting the mood for your workout can even improve your performance. Runners who focused on their surroundings or listened to their music of choice showed improved running economy and covered more distance in a running test. Not only will you come out of your workout feeling better than when you started, but you’ll get more out of each exercise.

4. Reduce Levels of Anxiety and Risk of Depression

According to the National Institution of Mental Health, an estimated 31 percent of Americans experience an anxiety disorder at some time in their lives, and 52.9 million Americans reported experiencing mental illness. Despite the prevalence of mental health disorders, treatment plans are often limited to cognitive behavioral therapy or medication. 

Integrating exercise into a treatment approach can help improve brain health which, in turn, can improve mental health. The boost in mental health from exercise may come from increasing the size of the hippocampus, reducing inflammation within the body, or even simply improving sleep. 

Research overwhelmingly shows regular exercise is effective in reducing anxiety levels. Some studies even found exercise alleviated symptoms of depression to a similar extent as antidepressant treatments alone or combined with exercise. However, dropout of the studies included in this review was higher in the exercise groups than the antidepressant groups, making finding an exercise routine you enjoy and can sustain long-term that much more important. 

The bottom line: Taking a sweat break during your day can make all the difference in how you feel in the moment and well into the future. You can reap the profound mental health benefits of your workout in as little as 30 minutes. Your body and mind will thank you.