We’re all familiar with the physical benefits of exercise. In our rush to make muscle gains, however, many people forget that exercise can lead to big-time gains in mental and emotional health as well. In today’s stressed out world, any advantage is a welcome one. Let’s get our brains pumped and learn about all the ways exercise can boost your mental fitness.
First up, the big one: stress relief. Stress has a serious long-term impact on both mental and physical health, and exercise is a quick way to reduce stress and combat the effects. We’ve all been there—taking our frustrations out on the weights or running off our anxiety. And it works! While the simple act of doing something that’s good for us plays a part, there’s a more scientific explanation: exercise increases levels of norepinephrine, which helps the brain deal with stress more effectively.
Staying in shape and being physically fit is also a big self-esteem booster. Self-esteem and confidence play an important role in our mental health. Setting and achieving fitness goals can be a huge source of confidence because you’re doing something that’s good for you and following through on a commitment you’ve made to yourself. You’re building that “mental-muscle.” Studies have shown that confident people tend to be happier overall, so it’s no surprise that this is a benefit for mental health.
Reduced stress and increased self-esteem both have enormous trickle-down effects on the rest of your life. Stress and low self-esteem are both major relationship killers and can also impact job performance. Studies have shown that workers who exercise on a regular basis are more productive. Chronic stress also has far-reaching impacts on physical health. Staying fit can reduce stress, which has a compounding effect on all these areas of life.
Of course, one of the most-studied mental health effects of exercise is its impact on anxiety and depression. You’ve probably heard that exercise releases endorphins. These hormones create feelings of happiness and euphoria. They can also help combat the symptoms of anxiety and depression. This is one of the biggest areas of research at the intersection of exercise and mental health, and the results are very promising.
The release of endorphins, combined with increased blood flow to the brain following exercise, both promote a sense of wellbeing and help reduce stress, boost productivity, and improve mood and attention. The effect is so strong that many counselors and psychologists have begun including regular exercise as a core part of their treatment plans for patients.
The impact isn’t just short-term, either. Regular exercise has been shown to help relieve even chronic clinical depression in patients, in some cases as effectively as antidepressant medication. Obviously, the side effects of exercise—like a strengthened immune system, better control of body weight, increased energy, and better sleep—are much more desirable than the potential side effects of antidepressants, which can include weight gain, fatigue, insomnia, and sexual problems.
Maybe the best part of all is that you don’t have to live in the gym to see the mental and emotional benefits of exercise. Studies show that just three to four 45- to 60- minute sessions of either cardio or resistance training is enough to see all the mental health benefits of exercise and help boost your mood and combat chronic depression. Have more time or want more benefits? Exercise more. But pretty much everyone can find three hours a week to boost their mental well being if they tried.
With all these scientifically-proven positive benefits, both physical and mental, it’s getting harder to accept excuses to not exercise and stay in shape. If you’re not exercising regularly, what are you waiting for? Your mind and body will both thank you!
Grant is a fitness coach and the founder of Team G-Fit.