Why is exercise so good for your mental health?

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Erik Nordlund, Mental health specialist
Why is exercise so good for your mental health?
We all know exercise improves our physical health, but there’s growing evidence on how it improves mental health too. Livi physiotherapist and mental health specialist Erik Nordlund explains why and how to reap the benefits

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We know that exercise can help to strengthen our heart and stave off major illnesses like type 2 diabetes and stroke. But it’s becoming clear that it can also have positive effects on our mental wellbeing, with some countries even prescribing exercise as a treatment for looking after your mental health.

If you’re in need of more motivation to join that running club or sign up to that yoga class, we’ve dived into the latest research to discover the biggest benefits.

How can physical activity benefit my mental health?

Evidence shows that exercise can help you:

  • Deal with stress better
  • Have more restful sleep
  • Naturally boost your mood
  • Improve your self-confidence

It doesn’t take hours of exercise to reap the benefits, either. One study found that just 10 minutes of running can boost mood. Another revealed that moving around a little throughout the day instead of staying seated for hours at a time can stave off depression symptoms.

While it’s not a cure, research shows that being active can help you manage the symptoms of mental health conditions, from anxiety to depression to ADHD.

Exercise can help calm anxiety

A large study that followed nearly 200,000 skiers over 21 years found that regular exercise reduced the risk of developing anxiety by almost 60%.

Anxiety has three parts to it, which act in a cycle. ‘Exercise can interrupt the anxious cycle,’ explains Erik Nordlund, Livi physiotherapist and mental health specialist. ‘Lighter activities, like yoga or walking, activate the part of the nervous system that helps you relax, reducing the physical effects of anxiety.’

Exercise can build your resilience to stress

Stress causes a rise in your heart rate, blood pressure and hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to help you respond to a threat or challenge. Once the threat is over, everything usually returns to normal. But it’s also possible to get ‘stuck’ in a state of chronic stress.

Research has shown that exercise can improve how you handle stress. ‘Physical activity helps normalise the stress system by prompting the body to go into recovery mode,’ explains Nordlund. ‘Being active is a way you can use the stress response to your advantage.’

In particular, doing exercise like yoga can activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and recovery and helps lower your stress levels.

Exercise may help you get better sleep

Regular, moderate exercise has been shown to promote more restful sleep, which helps keep your mood stable and cope with day-to-day life.

‘By burning energy and tiring out your muscles, you create an incentive for your body to go into rest mode,’ explains Nordlund. ‘Naturally, this causes sleepiness.’ And the research proves it – exercise can particularly improve sleep for people who find it hard to doze off.

Exercise can lift your mood

Although exercise can tire you out, it also delivers a boost of feel-good energy. These positive feelings are caused by the release of hormones. ‘Oxytocin is a social hormone, but we also get it from exercise,’ says Nordlund. ‘When you combine it with the endorphin release from exercise, you feel happy.’

Along with affecting your brain chemistry, exercise has been shown to benefit your state of mind. The positive psychological effects of exercise include:

- Increasing your self-confidence by proving you can face tough activities and achieve your goals.

- Providing a positive distraction by shifting your attention from negative thoughts to physical activity.

- Creating social connections by playing a competitive sport or exercising in a group, which naturally lifts your self-esteem.

Exercise may relieve ADHD symptoms

Exercise that raises your heart rate (such as cardio) can help with ADHD symptoms, improving:

  • Self-control
  • Response times
  • Attention span

A study of children with ADHD has shown that physical activity can improve aggressive behaviours, social problems, and anxiety and depression. Some of these benefits may be because exercise stimulates new brain cells to grow, especially in young kids.

Exercise can fight depression symptoms

Light, moderate and vigorous exercise have all been shown to ease the symptoms of depression in a similar way to antidepressant medication.

There are several theories about why exercise is helpful in depression. It could be because getting active:

  • Stimulates new brain cells to grow
  • Increases serotonin, a hormone that affects mood
  • Reduces inflammation, which could be related to depression

‘Motivation is a common obstacle to exercise for people with depression,’ says Nordlund. ‘Try to make sure all your other basic needs are met, such as eating, sleeping and getting help in the form of counselling or medication.’

What kind of exercises are best for your mental health?

A study of more than 1 million people found that all kinds of physical exercise helped with mental health.

‘The best type of exercise is one that is achievable for you, that you enjoy and that you can do regularly,’ says Nordlund. Stuck for inspiration? Try a walking or running club, dancing, joining a local sports team or resistance training like weight-lifting or high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

Can exercise ever become harmful to our mental health?

‘Sometimes people use exercise to avoid feelings or control their situation, especially if they suffer from an anxiety condition like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or an eating disorder,’ says Nordlund. ‘This can make anxiety worse in the long term, as well as risking injury from overtraining.’

If you feel dependent on exercise or think you’re doing too much, it’s a good idea to speak to a doctor, physiotherapist or psychologist to help you get the balance right.

When should I talk to a doctor about my mental health?

Despite its many benefits, exercise isn’t the only solution for a mental health problem. Make an appointment with a GP if you’re struggling to cope with your feelings or symptoms.

This article has been medically reviewed by mental health specialist Erik Nordlund.

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