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The Effects of Exercise on Mental Health (and the Benefits of Exercise for Those in Recovery) 

mental health benefits of exercise

The benefits of exercise on mental health are widely known, with physical activity helping to reduce stress, relieve anxiety, improve sleep, and boost a person’s mood. (That’s why exercise has long been integrated into our mental health treatment programs.) However, a new study published in 2023 confirmed that exercise is, in fact, highly effective in treating anxiety, depression, and psychological distress. While exercise is not a replacement for counseling or therapy, it can be an incredible component of an individual’s treatment plan. 

If you or a loved one is struggling with difficult mental health symptoms, like persistent sadness or worry and fear, starting an exercise routine could be beneficial for you. And even if you are just having a hard day, exercise can have an array of benefits on your mental health.  

Let’s explore the positive effects of exercise – backed by evidence – on your mental wellbeing. 

The Effects of Exercise on Mental Health 

Research shows that people who exercise regularly have better mental and emotional health, as well as lower rates of mental illness, than those without an exercise routine. This means that anyone can benefit from frequent exercise. For those with mild symptoms, exercise can immediately boost your mood, enhance your self-esteem, and reduce negative emotions like worry and fear. For those struggling with a deep-seated mental health disorder, exercise can be an important tool for improving cognitive function and self-control (on top of the many other benefits). 

How does exercise have the power to do all this? Well, when you exercise, a lot of changes occur within the brain.  

Scientists suggest there are a few ways that the brain responds to exercise. On one hand, it’s thought that exercise increases blood circulation to the brain, specifically influencing the parts of the brain that are responsible for motivation, mood, stress response, and memory formation. At the same time, the brain’s feel-good chemicals are released during exercise. The release of endorphins enhances one’s mood, boosts feelings of euphoria, and reduces feelings of pain. An increase in dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels also helps to improve one’s focus and attention after exercise. 

All the while, exercise also provides a distraction or escape, allowing people to take their mind off of worries and break away from the negative thoughts that fuel depression and anxiety.  

The Benefits of Exercise on Mental Health 

Now that we understand how exercise affects the brain, let’s explore some of the key benefits regular physical activity can have on one’s health and wellbeing: 

  • Improved mood: Exercise releases endorphins, the brain’s natural chemical to instantly improve mood. 
  • Reduced anxiety and stress: Due to the chemical changes in the brain, feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, and negative mood are reduced during exercise. 
  • Enhanced cognitive function: Exercise helps to improve memory, concentration, and alertness. 
  • Improved sense of control: Exercise can enhance one’s self-control and executive function by helping them better manage difficult feelings, become more flexible in thinking, and make healthier decisions. 
  • Healthy brain development: Regular exercise has been shown to promote the growth of new brain cells and improve overall brain health. Physical activity, in turn, may reduce the risk of developing certain mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, and can be an important component of treatment for these conditions. These cognitive benefits are especially impactful for children between six and 13 years old
  • Healthy coping mechanisms: For those struggling with mental illness, exercise is a healthy coping strategy, allowing one to escape from negative feelings or daily stressors. Rather than turning to drugs or alcohol, a person might turn to exercise to feel better.  
  • Better sleep: Regular exercise can help a person sleep better at night, by rejuvenating the mind and body during the day. This can have a whole other set of benefits on one’s mental and physical health. 
  • Improved self-esteem: Exercising enhances one’s confidence in a couple of ways. On one hand, it provides great feelings of accomplishment when one completes their fitness goals. At the same time, exercise helps people get into shape, which can also contribute to stronger self-esteem. 
  • More social interaction: In addition to the neurological benefits of exercise, many people find that physical activity increases social interaction with other, like-minded individuals. Joining a gym or taking a workout class, for example, offers the opportunity to meet or socialize with others. Even a walk around the neighborhood could spark up a conversation with someone new! 

All of the above mental health benefits of exercise are supported by an array of (perhaps more obvious) benefits on a person’s physical health. In addition to the above, exercise also has the power to reduce a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and infectious diseases—or even manage existing conditions. Physical activity also has positive effects on a person’s bone and muscle mass, improves one’s ability to complete everyday activities, and can lengthen a person’s life. 

What Amount of Exercise is Beneficial for Mental Health? 

The Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. This does not need to be intense exercise, however – it can include gardening, dancing, or walking! Choose activities that are feasible and maintainable for you as you begin your exercise journey. Starting small, even just 10 or 20 minutes of exercise per day, can help you build a routine. Research supports this, with Harvard citing that one, 15-minute run per day reduces the risk of depression by 26%. 

Research shows that any aerobic activity, including jogging, walking, swimming, cycling, dancing, walking, and yard work, has the potential to reduce anxiety and depression. However, higher intensity workouts, completed in shorter stints, have been associated with greater improvements in mental health symptoms. As you become more familiar with exercise, and your body adjusts, consider adding some high intensity activities into your weekly routine. 

Exercise as Mental Health Treatment 

Mental health treatment requires an integrated and personalized approach. This means one treatment method alone might not be as effective as multiple, combined approaches when addressing a mental health disorder. Additionally, treatment is not one-size-fits-all, and what works for one person may not work for another. With that in mind, a treatment plan should be created on an individual basis.  

It’s important to apply this thinking to this topic. While exercise has incredible benefits on both mental and physical wellbeing, it is not a replacement for other types of therapies like counseling or medication. It should be integrated into one’s treatment plan, if and when they are ready, so that they can maximize all the mental health benefits. 

At Turnbridge, we believe that physical fitness and mental fitness go hand-in-hand. For this reason, each client that enters our treatment programs is encouraged to make exercise a regular part of their lifestyle and routine. Turnbridge offers an on-site fitness center and gyms for individuals in our treatment programs. These centers are equipped with a range of cardio and strength equipment, to make exercise accessible and enjoyable. However, this is just the start. Turnbridge also offers:  

  • Experiential activities and therapies. Our Recovery In Motion program offers a variety of immersion activities, including hiking adventures, ski trips, water sports, and more. 
  • Team sports for young men and women. Various team sports are offered, including soccer, softball, baseball, lacrosse, football, and more. 
  • Mindfulness and meditation activities. This includes yoga classes for clients to focus on healing and wellness. 

Learn more about the various ways we integrate exercise into our mental health programs here: 

Interested in speaking with Turnbridge about how we can get you on the path towards better health and wellness? Contact us at 877-581-1793 to learn more.