While the physical health advantages of exercise are often discussed, the psychological benefits are generally overlooked. But analysis shows exercise can be very beneficial for mental health. Physical activity may assist ward off mental health issues before they start. Additionally, research shows exercise can correct the symptoms of many existing mental illnesses.

The relationship between mental health and exercise isn't completely clear — but working out and other forms of physical exercise can surely ease symptoms of depression or anxiety and make you seem better. Exercise may also help prevent depression and anxiety from coming back once you're feeling better.

Mental health experts often prescribe exercise as part of the treatment for particular mental illnesses. Exercise can alleviate many of the symptoms of depression, such as fatigue, tension, anger, etc.

For people with panic disorder and other anxiety-related situations, exercise can be a proactive way to release pent-up tension and defeat feelings of fear and worry.

Exercise also decreases sensitivity to the body's response to anxiety, as well as decreases the severity and recurrence of panic attacks in some cases.

Additionally, a consistent exercise program can help ease symptoms of other common co-occurring conditions, such as ​IBS.

Exercise can also be used to improve well-being in people who already feel mentally healthy. Elevated physical activity has been found to improve mood, increase energy levels, and improve quality sleep.

There are several causes why physical activity is important  for psychological well-being:

  • Exercise reduces stress hormones. Exercise reduces stress hormones like cortisol. It also boosts endorphins—your body's feel-good chemicals, giving your mood a natural lift.
  • Physical activity diverts you from negative thoughts and emotions. Physical exercise can take your brain off of your problems and either redirect it to the activity at hand or get you into a zen-like position.
  • Exercise increases confidence. Exercise can assist you to lose weight, tone your body, and keep a healthy glow and a smile. You may feel a subtle but significant boost in your mood as your clothes look more favorable and you project an aura of improved strength.
  • Exercise can be a good origin of social support. The advantages of social support are well-documented and many physical exercises can be social activities as well. So whether you join an exercise class or you play softball in a league, exercising with others can give you a double-dose of stress alleviation.
  • Better physical health may mean better mental health. Stress can cause illness, illness can also provoke stress. Increasing your overall health and endurance with exercise can save you a great deal of stress in the short-run and the long run.
  • Exercise gives a buffer against stress. Physical activity may be associated with lower physiological reactivity toward stress. Those who get more exercise may become less influenced by the stress they face. So, in addition to all the other advantages, exercise may supply some immunity toward future stress as well as a way to cope with current stress.

Overcoming obstructions to exercise

Even when you understand that exercise will assist you to feel better, taking that first step is still easier said than done. Obstacles to practicing are very real—particularly when you’re also fighting with a mental health issue.

Here are some typical barriers and how you can get past them.

Feeling tired. When you’re exhausted, depressed, or stressed, it seems that working out will just make you feel worse. But the fact is that physical activity is a powerful energizer. Studies show that consistent exercise can dramatically decrease fatigue and improve your energy levels. If you are genuinely feeling tired, encourage yourself a quick, 5-minute walk. Chances are, once you get going you’ll have higher energy and be capable of walking for longer.

Feeling overwhelmed. When you’re stressed or depressed, the thought of adding another burden to your busy daily schedule can seem overwhelming. Working out just doesn’t seem practical. If you have children, finding childcare while you exercise can also be a big obstacle. However, if you begin thinking of physical activity as a priority, you’ll soon find ways to fit small amounts of exercise into even the most hectic schedule.

Feeling hopeless. Even if you’ve never exercised before, you can still find ways to conveniently get active. Start slow with easy, low-impact exercises for a few minutes each day, such as walking or dancing. 

Getting started with exercise when you have a mental health problem

Many of us get it hard enough to stimulate ourselves to exercise at the best of times. But when you feel depressed, anxious, stressed, or have a different mental health problem, it can seem doubly challenging.

Start small. When you’re under the cloud of anxiety or depression and haven’t exercised for a long time, setting unreasonable goals like completing a marathon or going out for an hour every morning will only leave you more discouraged if you fall short. Better to set attainable goals and build up from there.

Schedule exercises when your energy is highest. Perhaps you have the most energy first thing in the morning before work or school or at lunchtime before the mid-afternoon. Or maybe you do better exercising for extended weekends. If sadness or anxiety has you feeling tired and unambitious all day long, try dancing to some music or just going for a walk. Even a short, 20-minute walk can help clear your mind, enhance your mood, and increase your energy level. As you move and start to feel a little better, you’ll often increase your energy enough to exercise more vigorously—by walking further, breaking into a run, or adding a bike ride, for example.


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