Alyssa Bialowas

The Mental Benefits of Exercise

While the physical benefits of exercise are well documented, there are numerous mental health benefits of exercise. If you’ve ever left a workout feeling on top of the world, you’ve experienced the mind-body link, but did you know physical exercise can also improve your mental health? Approximately one in five adults will suffer from a major depressive disorder in their lifetime, with depression twice as likely to occur in women than men (Blumenthal et al. 2012). Depression often co-occurs with other medical conditions including obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease (Blumenthal et al. 2012), all of which can be improved with exercise.

Physical activity shouldn’t be looked at as a cure for depression and other mental health issues, but exercise such as strength training has been shown to work as well as antidepressants and behavioral therapies (Gordon et al. 2018). Physical activity has also been shown to decrease the risk of dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases by improving cognitive function (Northey et al. 2017).

Related Article: 3 Exercise Tips to Prevent and Treat Depression

Here are 3 exercises for mental health.

1. Resistance Exercise Training Reduces Depressive Symptoms

Resistance training is any type of exercise where you’re working against some type of force that’s resisting your movement. This could be anything from weightlifting to bodyweight exercises to resistance bands. A study by Gordon et al. (2018) reviewed 33 published studies and concluded that resistance training significantly reduced depressive symptoms among adults, regardless of health status, what type of strength training they did, or significant improvements in strength. Weightlifting and strength training improved mood, a loss of interest in activities and feelings of unworthiness (Gordon et al. 2018).

Related Article: Don’t Resist Resistance Training

2. Exercise Can Reduce the Risk of Depression Relapse

Research out of Duke University compared the effects of aerobic exercise training to the antidepressant medicine sertraline (Blumenthal et al. 2012). 156 older adults were randomized to four months of either aerobic exercise, sertraline or a combined exercise and sertraline group. Although groups did not differ in their level of depressive symptoms after 16 weeks, the researchers did a follow-up examination after 10 months and found that participants in the exercise group showed lower rates of depression relapse compared to sertraline and combined groups. Further, participants who reported doing regular exercise in the follow-up period were more than 50% less likely to be depressed at the 10-month assessment compared than those who didn’t (Blumenthal et al. 2012).

3. Exercise Can Decrease Risk of Dementia

Exercise is extremely important for the mind, especially as we grow older. Physical exercise has been shown to decrease the risk of dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases. A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (Northey et al, 2017) found that physical exercise (specifically aerobic exercise, resistance training, multi-component training and tai chi) improves cognitive function in people over the age of 50, regardless of the cognitive status of participants. The research suggests an exercise regimen with components of both aerobic and resistance-type training of at least moderate intensity and at least 45 minutes per session to benefit cognitive function (Northey et al. 2017).

More Benefits of Exercise and Mental Health

Exercise and Sleep

Exercising in the morning helps regulate your sleep patterns. Vigorous exercise at night can disrupt your sleep patterns but gentle exercise such as yoga and stretching is recommended at night.

Exercise and Energy

Exercise has a tremendous effect on energy levels. Bouts of exercise can increase your energy immediately. Are you feeling a yawn coming on? Head outside for a brisk walk.

Exercise and Resilience

Become resilient with exercise. Exercise empowers humans to achieve hard things. When faced with a low mental state, exercise can be a healthy coping strategy. It is also a stress relief. Lower stress = better mental health.

Exercise and Diet

Exercise can help reduce cravings, especially high-intensity exercise. New research published in the International Journal of Obesity found that participants who worked out at a higher intensity took in fewer calories for over 24 hours than the other participants who performed a moderate intensity workout.

The mental health benefits of exercise should not go unnoticed. Only a few minutes of exercise per day can have positive effects on your mental health. You do not need to spend hours in the gym to reap the benefits of exercise and mental health. Every little bit of activity is better than nothing.

Related Article: Lengthen Healthspan Through Exercise

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Gordon, B.R., McDowell C.P., Hallgren, M., Meyer, J.D., Lyons, M., and Herring, M.P. 2018. “Association of Efficacy of Resistance Exercise Training With Depressive Symptoms: Meta-analysis and Meta-regression Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials.” JAMA Psychiatry.

Northey, J.M., Cherbuin, N., Pumpa, K.L., Smee, D.J., and Rattray, B. 2017. “Exercise Interventions for Cognitive Function in Adults Older than 50: A Systematic Review with Meta-analysis.” British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Blumenthal, J.A., Smith, P.J., and Hoffman, B.M. 2012. “Is Exercise a Viable Treatment for Depression?” ACSM’s Health and Fitness Journal, 4, 14-21.