The mental health benefits of exercise: How physical activity can ease the symptoms of depression and anxiety

Exercise is good for your body. It can help you maintain a healthy weight and decrease your risk of developing cancer, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. But exercise is also good for your mental health. It can reduce tension and stress, improve your concentration, and stabilize your mood. People who exercise feel more energetic throughout the day and sleep better at night. But did you know that regular physical activity can also help you manage depression and anxiety?

Depression and anxiety symptoms often improve with exercise

Most people know that regular exercise offers a number of physical health benefits. But exercise can also boost your mood and ease the symptoms of depression and anxiety. In fact, physically active people have lower rates of anxiety and depression than those who live a sedentary lifestyle.

One reason for this is that exercise releases natural chemicals in your brain called endorphins. These hormones enhance your sense of wellbeing and make you feel better. Physical activity also boosts neurotransmitters in the brain—dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin—all of which affect focus and attention.

At the same time, regular exercise interrupts the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression and anxiety. Getting in shape makes you feel better about yourself. And meeting exercise goals provides a sense of achievement and boosts your self-confidence.

Exercise helps you cope better with stress

In addition to relaxing your muscles and relieving the tension in your body, regular exercise can help you:

  • Raise your self-esteem
  • Build resilience
  • Boost your immune system
  • Regulate your sleep patterns

Even short bursts of physical activity can work quickly to reduce stress. The effects are temporary, but a brisk 10-minute walk can deliver several hours of relief. Of course, regular exercise over the long term is more likely to produce mental health benefits that last.

Move for mental health

Starting an exercise program doesn’t mean you need to join a gym or buy expensive equipment. Exercise includes any physical activity that gets you moving. If you’re not ready to take up swimming or weightlifting, activities like gardening and cleaning your house count as physical activity. Going for a walk or dancing to your favorite music offers real health benefits. You can even exercise while sitting at your desk or watching TV.

Be sure to check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program. Your doctor can recommend activities and fitness levels that are right for you. And if you exercise outside, remember to wear sunscreen—even in the winter.

How much exercise is enough?

Just 30 minutes of moderate exercise, three to five times a week, is enough to improve the symptoms of depression and anxiety. But you don’t have to get all your daily exercise at once. Two 15-minute exercise sessions counts the same as a 30-minute walk.

If you think you’re too busy to exercise, find creative ways to sneak physical activity into your life.

Exercise tips for beginners

When you start a new exercise program, be patient. If you haven’t been active for a while, it may take up to eight weeks for exercise to feel natural for you. Remember that physical activity is a powerful energizer, and regular exercise will increase your energy levels. More important, it helps you cope with mental and emotional challenges in a healthy way, instead of resorting to alcohol or other negative behaviors.

Here are some tips to help you get moving and stay motivated:

Start small. Set realistic goals, and choose activities that match your abilities. It’s hard to stay motivated if you set exercise goals you’re unlikely to meet. Aim for consistency rather than perfect workouts.

Fit physical activity into your daily routine. Any activity that gets you moving counts. Skip the elevator and take the stairs. Get off the bus a few stops early. Park at the back of the lot and walk to the store. Exercise is also a great time to double task: Clean the house, wash the car, weed the garden, mow the lawn, or sweep the porch.

Focus on activities you enjoy. Play tag with your kids in the yard. Plan a weekend bike tour of nearby neighborhoods. Sign up for canoe lessons. Visit a U-pick fruit farm. Or challenge your spouse to a dance contest.

Stay focused on the mental health benefits of exercise. Remember, like medication and therapy, exercise is a powerful tool that can help you get better.

Make physical activity a priority. Reminding yourself that exercise is good for your mental well-being can help you find ways to fit small amounts of activity into your schedule.

Overcome barriers. What’s stopping you from being physically active? If you feel self-conscious when you exercise, find activities you can do at home. If you have trouble staying motivated on your own, find a workout buddy or wear a fitness tracker. Keeping track of your progress over time can motivate you to reach your health goals.

You don’t have to be perfect. If you skip exercise for a day or two, you don’t have to give up on your plan. From time to time, everyone needs a break. Hopefully, you’ll be ready to get moving again tomorrow.

Make exercise a habit. The more you exercise, the more energy you’ll have. Over time, slowly add extra minutes—and try different activities. Keep it up, and the benefits of exercise will start to pay off.

Additional source

Mayo Clinic, Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms