There are so many physical benefits to exercise; heart health, muscle maintenance, bone strength, gut health, and, of course, general health and wellness. These tend to be the key reasons we drag ourselves to the gym/Pilates class/running track every other day. However, an amazing benefit that is often overlooked is the effect that exercise can have on our mental health.
The improvements that exercise can make on your mental health are vast. From relieving stress, to managing anxiety, to being a first-line treatment for depression, exercise is a key player in keeping your brain healthy. In a time where we spend so much of our day to day life exposed to stressors (work deadlines, family commitments, media overload, being ‘busy’) regular exercise can often be the only downtime that we have for ourselves.
Check out the role that exercise plays in managing stress, anxiety and depression below:
Exercise is one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to manage both acute and long-term chronic stress. Research has shown that just 20-30 minutes of aerobic activity causes a decrease in stress levels. Simple, right?
A study by Zschuke et al (2015) found that exercise decreased cortisol (one of your stress hormones) levels in men who completed 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, regardless of whether they regularly participated in exercise or were sedentary. The men who were regularly active showed the greatest reduction in cortisol levels, showing that it really is beneficial for your stress levels to make exercise a regular part of your routine!
Just to add some fuel to your stress fire, research has also shown that your motivation to exercise is greatly reduced when you are stressed. Although exercise decreases stress levels, increased levels of stress also decrease the likelihood that you will head to the gym. What better reason to schedule in your sweat sessions, get your friends and family on board, or sign up to that spin class to force you into doing good for your mind and body.
If your anxiety levels are on the rise, research consistently points to exercise as an excellent way to bring it back down to a manageable level. Although we’re still a bit sketchy on the dose response (i.e. how much exercise you have to do to get an effect) studies have shown that exercise reduced anxiety levels, and can be especially effective when combined with medication. A meta-analysis by Stubbs et al (2017) found that exercise was an effective tool in improving the symptoms of anxiety for people with a current diagnosis of anxiety and/or a stress-related disorder.
If you suffer with depression, exercise is (of course) an important part of managing your mental health and taking control of your symptoms. Research again and again shows that exercise is comparable to antidepressants as a first-line treatment for mild to moderate depression. Exercise has also been shown to improve the symptoms of depression when used in conjunction with medication.
To get the most out of your exercise, particularly when looking to improve the symptoms of depression, intensity level matters! In a study of 61 university students, doing no exercise increased their depressive symptoms, completing high intensity interval training decreased depressive symptoms but increased perceived stress levels, and moderate intensity continuous training decreased both depressive symptoms and reduced inflammation levels.
Exercise is an excellent tool to promote mindfulness, boost your serotonin (the neurotransmitter that makes you feel good) levels and manage your stress. In order to get the greatest mental health benefit possible, exercise should be an enjoyable part of your weekly routine. Make sure you’re doing activities that you enjoy and know you will make you feel great afterwards.
Rachel is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist based in Australia. She has worked with hundreds of clients to help them become fitter, stronger, healthier and more confident regardless of age, injury or experience level. She is the founder and director of RE.connection Project – an online program and community aiming to make health and wellness more accessible to women around the world.