Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi

Improving Mental Health: The Benefits of Exercise

Exercise is good for you. It improves your body and mind in many wonderful ways, but you probably already knew that. But have you ever thought about the impact exercise or the lack thereof can have on how someone is "doing"? I mean, how they are doing. It turns out physical activity can be a make or break factor in mental health.

Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand. If one shows up, the other can often come along with it. The good news is that exercise is beneficial for both conditions. A meta-analysis of 13 studies (covered in the Depression and Anxiety Journal) concluded that people who do more aerobic exercise have a more significant buffer against developing anxiety and related mental health conditions than those who do not exercise.(1)

Exercise or Lack Thereof Influences Mental Health

We have all heard that we will be healthier and happier if we exercise regularly. Though there are significant changes that can happen to our bodies when we exercise, let’s not forget the benefits of regular exercise on mental health are incredibly favorable. For example, we become happier, more sociable, and less lonely when we work out. In addition, bodily movement has the power to improve your mood, boost your confidence, and enhance your self-esteem. So if you exercise regularly, your mental health stands a much better chance of weathering the inevitable difficulties life brings.

Whether or not you are personally familiar with mental or emotional health struggles, chances are you know someone who it affects. So let's talk about the power of exercise to improve mental and emotional health.

Exercise Benefits for Mental Health

It is no secret that the people who could benefit the most from physical activity are often the same people who have the most significant barriers to exercise. And mental health is no exception. Anyone suffering from stress, anxiety or depression may experience difficulty getting themselves to exercise. It is common for mental health struggles to be accompanied by negative thoughts, negative self-talk, social isolation, loss of interest in things previously enjoyed, lower energy levels, and as a result, decreased movement. Whether you have to use your imagination or are personally familiar with these experiences, trust they are difficult circumstances to overcome.

Though anxiety and depression can make it feel hard or scary to begin exercising to help manage mental health, the upsides of giving it a shot far outweigh any potential downsides, of which there are few. If you wrestle with anxiety or depression and are considering an exercise routine to help you feel better, remember to start small, set realistic goals and build up slowly.

Exercisers can experience the positive benefits after just one workout, but the compound results over time deliver the most significant and lasting benefits. So approach exercise with an attitude of patience and good pacing.

Exercise is as effective as antidepressant medication

Many studies have demonstrated exercise is as effective as antidepressant medication for treating mild to moderate depression, but without the side effects that can sometimes come with taking medication. For example, one study found that jogging for 15 minutes per day or walking for an hour per day reduced the risk of developing major depression by 26%. In addition to relieving depressive symptoms, research also indicates maintaining a regular exercise routine can prevent relapses in depression. This makes exercise a very attractive alternative to medication or at least a great addition to someone’s routine if they are already taking medication.(2)

So why is exercise such a powerful prescription for mental health disorders? In part, it is because exercise is a powerful mood booster. The effects of exercise help your body make some of the feel-good chemicals that are mimicked by popular antidepressant and antianxiety medications. Exercise helps promote all kinds of positive changes in your brain and has the power to reduce harmful inflammation. It also releases endorphins, the "feel good" chemicals the brain produces to make you feel calm and energized. Finally, exercise can also serve as a distraction, allowing you to take your mind off any negative thought patterns that might contribute to depression and anxiety.

Exercise Improves Sleep

Even short bursts of exercise can help regulate sleep patterns that are often disrupted when mental health is suffering. For example, if you are restless at night due to racing thoughts or wake up multiple times throughout the night, exercise can help normalize your sleep so you can get the restorative sleep your mind and body need. Getting better rest can help regulate mood and brain function. So if there's room for improvement when it comes to your sleep, exercise may be just what the doctor ordered.

Exercise Improves Self-Esteem

When exercise becomes a habit, it can grow your sense of self-worth and make you feel strong. Feeling your body getting stronger and building up endurance does incredible things for self-esteem. You may begin to feel proud of the improvements you are making, and by meeting even small exercise goals, you will feel a sense of achievement. Accumulating exercise "wins" over time can help you feel like you are being productive and successful at taking care of yourself.

Exercise Builds Resilience

When faced with mental and emotional challenges in life, mental resilience built through exercise can prove that you are capable of handling discomfort and challenges. Drawing on that resilience can help you cope with life's difficulties in a healthy way instead of resorting to harmful behaviors that may only worsen symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Your Mind Will Benefit From Regular Exercise

In short, exercise makes you feel better. And when you feel better, you're more likely to take other healthy actions that will make you feel good. For example, you may eat better, sleep better, seek out the social support and connection you need, and take care of your responsibilities. When any one of those components of your life is trending in a positive direction, it can have a ripple effect that promotes improvements in other areas.

Of course, this imaginary domino effect is just that - it is imaginary. But the upward spiral you can experience from regular exercise doesn't have to be an imagination. It can be a real thing! So if you feel like you could use a mental or emotional boost, consider how you might start to include a little exercise into your weekly routine. Who knows? Exercise could be the domino you need to knock over to kick start your self-care routine.

  1. Aerobic exercise for adult patients with major depressive disorder in mental health services: A systematic review and meta-analysis

  2. The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

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