Why Exercise Helps Mental Health

November 25, 2013

From my own off-and-on exercise program, I can tell that everything works better when I work out, literally from head to toe.  But I never dug into the reasons why.  Now I have an Intern, Rachel Miedema, who has pulled together some of the research that explains the connection.  If you just want the conclusions, read the following article she has written.  If you’re moreImage curious, you can click on the links she’s provided for more detailed original source material.  Now, if you want to dive in, Rachel can integrate your mental functioning with your physical functioning.  She offices at Forte Counseling Center, 1422 W. Main St., Lewisville, 75067 (under the supervision of J. Lee Jagers, PhD, LPC-S) and can be reached at 972-219-1628 or rachelmiedema@gmail.com.  Check out her web site too.  She’s a remarkable person and uniquely trained with a degree in Exercise Science, a Masters Degree in Kinesiology and a Masters in Biblical Counseling.  Not only smart, but a fun and delightful person, easy to relate to.

Here’s what she writes:

Everyone has heard about the positive health effects of exercise: decreases cardiovascular disease, decrease body weight, increases circulation, improves immune system functioning, regulates hormonal balance, and on and on.  And you may have heard that exercise helps mental health, but have you heard any evidence as to how?   Many researchers have investigated that exact question and below is a brief summary of the positive correlation between physical activity and improved mental health.

Research Area #1: Brain chemistry 

Exercise increases serotonin, which is the same brain neurotransmitter that is increased by certain types of antidepressant medications called SSRI, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.  These medications increase the amount of serotonin in the brain by slowing its absorption.  Exercise naturally accomplishes this same effect.

Exercise also releases endorphins, which have been termed a “runners high” for the way they naturally mimic opiates.  Some of these effects are a sense of well-being, pain relief, improved immune system functioning, and reducing stress.

Exercise also increases norepinephrin which has a positive effect on memory, learning, and physical arousal.  Norepinephrin also has a secondary effect on mood much like serotonin and is also effected by a class of antidepressants called SNRI’s, serotonin norephinephrin reuptake inhibitors.

Research Area #2: Mood effects

One study shows that regular exercise directly correlates with both state (in the moment) and trait (underlying) anger.  These participants self-reported that exercising 2-3 times a week led to significantly less anger.  If it works for them it may work for you too.

Exercise is statistically equal to antidepressant medication in its effect on depression and low mood as well as statically higher rates of preventing relapse compared to placebo groups.  So regular physical exercise helps just as much as the best medication in the field.

Physical activity is also shown to have a positive effect on anxiety.  One researchers described it in this way, “Exercise in many ways is like exposure treatment,” says Smits. “People learn to associate the symptoms with safety instead of danger.”  The more instances your body has to overcome the symptoms of anxiety, the better adapted it becomes.

Research Area #3: Daily Patterns

Regular exercise leads to increased feelings of energy and decreased feelings of fatigue.  These effects can improve depression, low mood, anxiety, and overall stress.

Speaking of stress, exercise is shown to help a person cope with stress.  The body reacts to the physical stress effect so exercise in the same way it reacts to mental stress and regular exercise helps to adapt to this occurrence.

Regular physical activity is also correlated with improved sleep.  Studies show that a regular exerciser goes to sleep faster, feels more refreshed when waking up, and feels less tired throughout the day.  Those who report the highest self-report mood and mental health average 7-9 hours of sleep.

Exercise is also shown to improve confidence, self-esteem, and body image.  This happens as exercisers lose body weight, become stronger, and learn new skills or hobbies.

On a purely anecdotal note, exercise can be fun and enjoyable.  Making time to exercise daily can bring a positive distraction from day to day stresses or concerns.

Lastly, regular exercise can create built in community in which genuine, supportive friendships can form around a common activity.  If there is ever a day you may want to take off from exercise when you know it’d be in your best interest to work out anyway, a good network of accountability and community could be the answer.

These positive effects of exercise improve overall wellness, including healthy body, mind, and soul.  Hopefully, this information will help you get out there and move!