Real Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

Real Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

Depressed man

Mental illness isn’t anything to play around with. One in five adults today in the US have some form of mental illness. At the same time, only 23% of Americans get the recommended amount of exercise. With all of the mental health benefits associated with exercise, why aren’t we collectively doing more for ourselves? Could the rise in mental illness rates be connected to our collective decrease in overall fitness levels? That isn’t for me to say, but the benefits of a good fitness regimen go far beyond the physical.

Improving your mental health is the most important thing that you can do for yourself. Think about it. Have you ever seen someone when they are feeling depressed, anxious, or lacking confidence in themselves? Their entire world suffers. Maybe that person has been (or is) you and you know exactly what I am talking about.

Depressed looking man against a wall

Thankfully, there are natural (and best of all free!) ways to replace stress, depression, or lack of confidence with pride and a sense of accomplishment.

Fitness isn’t just about looking good

When we think about exercise, we think about the health of a body; strong muscles, lower levels of fat, and a toned form accompany lower overall levels of disease and sickness. When we are fit our skin looks more youthful and we just look healthy. Fit people generally function better physically. The benefits for your body are unquestionable.

What most people don’t talk about is the positive effect exercise has on your Mental Health. The unseen benefits of being fit are arguably more important than what you see in the mirror. The mind controls the body and when your mind isn’t at its best, your body suffers too, and so do you.

Catharsis – Letting it Go

People have a hard time letting go of their daily stress. But, holding on to stress can cause depression or myriad other mental issues. Most people today turn to medication or therapy for help, there is a natural and proven way to relieve stress that helps you to get back on the road to being yourself. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes those things might be necessary, but what if all we need is a bit of exercise?

When you walk into a gym, you’re walking away from the outside world. You are walking into a place with actual therapeutic effects that are as different as the machinery inside. The only thing that matters when you work out is you and what you’re doing to better yourself.

An enormous benefit of exercise lies in how millions of people over hundreds (thousands?) of years have reported feeling relaxed as a result of physical activity. Studies, such as this one, back up those sentiments.

Heavy bag workouts, for example, can help get out some built up aggression and stress much more effectively than simply venting about your day to a friend. You can feel stress slowly lifting off of your shoulders as you hit the bag. By the time you are tired, all of your stress more than likely has melted away. The same can be said about nearly any form of exercise; spin class, competitive sports, weight lifting.

Walking away after a good workout can leave you feeling a sense of accomplishment and, especially on days where you were mentally exhausted, pride. That is an enormous benefit of exercise that really helps with your mental health!

Neurotransmitters and Brain Chemistry

You may have heard about things called endorphins back in biology class. They were probably mentioned quite a few times throughout the class as being highly important little chemicals that float around and perform critical functions within your nervous system. Well, consider this a reminder that they are still incredibly important. In fact, low levels of certain neurotransmitters can seriously mess with your head. Literally.

Endorphins are one of the many brain chemicals known as “Neurotransmitters.” These neurotransmitters communicate with the brain to create different results depending on the body’s current needs.

Brain after walking for 20 minutes - endorphin activation.
Image from Lifehacker

When the brain is feeling stressed or there is pain somewhere in the body, endorphins are what help alleviate that pain or stress and cause you to feel better.

Serotonin, is a different type of neurotransmitter that is often referred to as the “happy chemical” within your brain. Low levels could cause depression, among other things, and one of the best mental health benefits of exercise is that it helps build your serotonin levels over time.

Additionally, there are other neurotransmitters such as dopamine and Norepinephrine, each of which have their own functions and can cause problems if there aren’t high enough levels of them present.

But why do some people have lower levels of these chemicals? Low levels and chemical imbalances are generally caused by traumatic experiences, natural causes, or addictions. Oftentimes, people with lower levels of these chemicals have depression and need to take medication to help their brain’s chemical imbalance. However, as we have seen with society, medications come with their own list of risks a mile long.

Luckily, many of these neurotransmitters are released during various activities, including exercise which is one of the best and most natural ways to produce these chemicals. When paired with the medication, the two are an amazing team to fight depression.

Self-Esteem and Body Image

Some men and women suffer from things like body dysmorphia and eating disorders. These mental illnesses make people see themselves as something that they are not. Average people, like you and I, struggle to see themselves as attractive. They may see themselves as 50 lbs heavier than they actually are. Seeing yourself as subpar or obsessing with minor flaws that everyone has can cause drastic problems mentally.

Body Dysmorphia
Image from AAC

If you are struggling with body image or low-self esteem, working out will do more than just help you see the physical changes in your body. It will help you see changes within yourself. Self confidence will sky rocket as you see how much you are capable of. The pride and accomplishment that you feel from reaching a goal that you set for yourself can help lift you out of a low point. When you feel good, you look good. Confidence is key!

Self Regulation

Many people feel that they have no control or that other people control their lives. Our busy lifestyles can push us to feel helpless. Your fitness regimen, however, is completely in your control. When you workout, how you exercise, it’s all in your hands. You have complete control over it. Every move you make is your choice. For some people, that might be all they need.

How Much and How Often

The only thing that you should keep in mind while on this journey is that you have to be consistent. If you want to / need to start small, start small. Exercise three times a week at first for 30-45 minutes. Wherever you start off, use it as a foundation to build from.

Once you have your routine going for awhile, add a day. After awhile change up your routine. Add an extra day or lengthen your work out. Changing it up can help keep you from getting bored and quitting.

Reflect on your progress weekly, taking into account how you feel physically and emotionally. See if there is anywhere you can push yourself harder, but don’t go overboard and replace a negative feeling with an obsession.

Missing a workout here and there or not making progress quickly enough doesn’t necessarily mean you have to kill yourself to make it up. When your body is telling you that it cannot work out, listen. Trust the process.

It’s For Your Sanity

The brain is incredibly powerful, and the more you help your mental health the more your brain can give you back. It affects everything; confidence, mood, and your entire quality of life.

Getting started on your journey can be hard. Change can be scary and poor mental health can be difficult to overcome long enough to get started. You don’t have to do it alone if you don’t want to. Take a friend with you, hire a trainer, or take classes. Whatever you do, just get started. It’s for your sanity, after all.

If you are ready to start working on yourself today, check here.