• Kayla Freeman, LMSW

Why is Exercise Good for Your Mental Health?

And what's the "right" amount or way to exercise? The surprising science bucking our assumptions of what it means to be "fit" or "healthy."

A 2018 study of CDC data for over 1.2 million Americans found that people who engage in regular exercise self-report an average of 43.2% fewer days of poor mental health than those without a regular exercise routine.

This works out to be almost a whole weekend every month! Over a year, that’s about two and half weeks of feeling great instead of feeling sad, anxious or depressed.

“For some people exercise works as well as antidepressants, although exercise alone isn’t enough for someone with severe depression.” — Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

However, although exercise has proven benefits for mental health, it’s not a silver bullet. If you’re unable to exercise, or maybe you’ve tried but failed to get the mental health benefits; don’t despair. Not every mental illness is responsive to exercise, and that doesn’t mean you have failed or are flawed if that’s true for you, too.

Why It Works

When we get our heart rate up, we increase the blood flow to our brain. With more blood flow, our brain is exposed to more oxygen and more nutrients. The brain then releases proteins that help to grow new neurons, or brain cells. So if you’ve ever heard people joke about “killing off brain cells” after a night of hard partying, exercise literally does the opposite. When we exercise, our brain starts healing itself and creating new brain cells to keep our brain working at peak performance.

Beyond the physical changes in the brain caused by exercise, we also see chemical changes: dopamine and endorphins are released, causing the euphoric sensation sometimes known as a “runner’s high”. It’s that happy feeling you get after your first 15 or 20 minutes of vigorous exercise, when you’re no longer paying attention to feeling sore or sweaty and instead just basking in the euphoric dopamine glow that leaves you feeling invincible.

However, long after this initial rush of feel-good chemicals wears off, we still reap the benefits of exercise. This is because exercise also prompts our brain to purge hormones such as excess of adrenaline or cortisol, that our brains initially created in response to stress or anxiety.

Think of exercise as a great way to close all those extra tabs in your brain that are taking up space; exercise cleans out negative feelings and pumps in positive ones!

Exercise, But Not Too Much

The same research study that noted the benefits of exercise also found that people who exercise more than 3 hours a day or otherwise use exercise as a form of punishing or disciplining themselves experience negative mental health consequences. Yep, it's true. Those who use exercise to punish or "discipline" themselves are worse off mental health-wise than the people who didn’t exercise at all.

So how much exercise is the “right” amount? How much do I need to feel great without overdoing it?

The best exercise for mental health is anything that gets your heart rate up, so you can get that increased blood flow to the brain. This doesn’t have to be running sprints if the idea makes you cringe; try walking briskly to the store and back, learning some choreography from a YouTube video, or a kettlebell routine at home.

If you exercise 30–60 minutes a day for an average of 4 days a week, you’ll reap the maximum mental health benefits of exercise. Anything short of this target is still great progress though, because exercise begets more exercise!

Each time you exercise, it’ll get easier to repeat the process, and you may even find yourself starting to crave the sensation instead of associating it with old stories about needing to "improve" yourself.

Remember to be gentle with yourself and start with the smallest amount of activity you can tolerate or enjoy. In the end, the best exercise for your mental health is the one you’ll actually do.

Beyond the Physical

Along with these physiological and neurological benefits, exercise is a great way to build your confidence and self-esteem. No, I’m not talking about building muscles or losing weight; I'm more interested in internal sensations and relationship with yourself rather than some outmoded idea of aesthetics. Whether you walk for 30 min or run 5 miles, you can feel proud and confident knowing that you took action to heal your mind. Moving your body is an act of grace and gratitude for the abilities and sensations your body provides you access to.

For many of us, the relationship we have with exercise is steeped in old, harmful messages about being too big, too weak, too soft, or not having enough strength, muscle or stamina. Learning how to love moving your body after a lifetime of self-rejection is tough!

To engage in mindful, joyful movement find the activities that genuinely attract your attention: Maybe you don't love to run, but you enjoy walking in the park with a podcast! Or you hate the idea of going to the gym, but you've always wanted to join an adult kickball league. Perhaps it's time to return to the nightclubs and get your dance on with fellow, sweaty strangers after dark!

There's no wrong way to have a body, and no wrong way to enjoy moving and exercising it, too. Why not give it a shot? Prove your old self-stories about exercise wrong; your brain will thank you for it!

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