I love to run, and truly appreciate ALL the ways it helps me physically. But, the mental health benefits from exercise for me are a close second. I’ve notice that during winter, and the often dreary weather it brings, that my exercise is critical in keeping a positive mood and outlook. Or, if I miss a few days of exercise, I’m not a happy camper. I’ve spent time researching the impact of exercise on mental health and mood, and am sharing that insight.
Exercise and Running Mental Health Benefits
This is not an exhaustive list, but here’s a few key areas where our mental health improves with exercise.
1. Better mood – After running or any exercise, especially after a tough day, it’s likely you feel better afterward. Michal Otto, PhD and professor of psychology at Boston University states “the link between exercise and mood is pretty strong. Usually within five minutes after moderate exercise, you get a mood-enhancement effect.”
That’s because it’s proven that exercise releases increased neurotransmitters in the brain that positively impact mood (serotonin and norepinephrine).
2. Manage stress better – Most of us have heard of endorphins, and its impact on a “runner’s high.” Yet, another brain chemical known as norepinephrine, can help moderate how we respond to stress. This chemical is thought to play a big role in affecting other neurotransmitters that directly impact our stress response. AND, exercise appears to provide our bodies with the chance to practice dealing with stress. During exercise, the body’s key systems communicate much more closely than they normally do. Meaning, our body can better cope with stress when it occurs because we’ve had practice!
3. Improved sleep – Exercise and running increase the amount of time spent in deep sleep. That’s important because it is the most restorative phase physically, and also helps boost immunity. Besides better quality sleep, exercise also aids in the duration of time slept. Not to mention that regular exercise better manages your stress levels, which can impede your ability to get to sleep, or have a restful night’s sleep.
More Exercise Mental Health Benefits
4. Improved brain power – Exercise, especially cardiovascular exercise, can grow your brain. Seriously. Increased blood flow and oxygen that occurs during cardiovascular exercise leads to neurogenesis, which is essentially the production of neurons in certain parts of your brain that impact memory and thinking. And, a more powerful brain leads to better brain performance (better decision making, ability to learn, etc.).
5. Prevents cognitive decline – The improved brain power also means less cognitive decline as people age. Exercise, especially between the ages of 25-45, boosts brain chemicals that prevent a key area of the brain from degenerating. This area, the hippocampus, impacts our memory and ability to learn. And for those predisposed to early onset Alzheimer’s, exercise can delay the start by as many as 15 years!
6. Get more done! That’s right. Research shows that those who exercise regularly have more energy and are more productive than their sedentary work peers. That translates into getting the same amount of work done in less time. While it’s sometimes difficult to find the time to squeeze in exercise, that can be balanced out by your higher energy level/productivity when you’re not exercising.
Exercise’s Impact on Anxiety and Depression
Positive impact on anxiety and depression. Anxiety/anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders. Research shows moderate/vigorous exercise done over weeks to months reduces anxiety symptoms in adults.
7. A single exercise session has an immediate (same day) impact to decrease anxiety symptoms. Yet, most improvements become larger with regular, consistent exercise. One particular study results showed a large improvement in anxiety sensitivity after just a two week exercise program.
8. While there’s a need for further research, compelling evidence shows that exercise helps depression, a leading cause of disability for middle-age adults in the U.S. “There’s good epidemiological data to suggest that active people are less depressed than inactive people. And people who were active and stopped tend to be more depressed than those who maintain or initiate an exercise program,” says James Blumenthal, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Duke University.
As said, we know that exercise can help moderate a person’s responsiveness. “Exercise may be a way of biologically toughening up the brain so stress has less of a central impact,” Michael Otto says. Besides biological changes, there are psychological explanations, too. Exercise may boost a depressed person’s outlook by engaging in meaningful activity and providing a sense of accomplishment.
Even with compelling evidence of exercise on mental health, we know that someone with depression is less likely to take on exercise. I will write a separate blog on this topic, as I think it’s important. But, Charlotte Herrold wrote a piece in Flare that explains the dynamic between exercise and depression. She writes “what these articles never talk about is how difficult it can be to get out there if your mental health isn’t already at a decent baseline.”
How much exercise do I need to get the mental benefits?
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans provides science–based guidance on exercise. The 2018 version includes the link between exercise and mental health. Specifically it covers cognition, sleep, depression, anxiety and overall quality of life.
For substantial health benefits (per week):
- 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (brisk walk/doubles tennis).
- Or 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise (running, swimming, HIIT)
- Plus muscle strengthening exercise of major muscle groups twice per week
Depending on your exercise intensity, that’s as little as ~1.5 hours-2.5 hours, plus two muscle strengthening sessions per week. All the physical and mental benefits from exercise for ~30 minutes/day; seems like time well spent.
Why is it so difficult to start exercising?
You may wonder, if exercise is so beneficial to mental and physical health, why is it so hard to start? According to a CDC study, only ~23% of U.S. adults meet the standard for exercise requirements. Read here on how to improve your motivation, and run/exercise more consistently. But, also keep these things in mind if you’re starting out with a new exercise plan.
- If you’re new to exercise, start slowly with a moderate exercise plan. Studies show that when people exercise above their respiratory threshold (hard to talk), they postpone the exercise mood boost by 30 minutes. Since one benefit of exercise is that quick mood boost, delaying it may turn off folks new to exercise for good. The key then is to start with a moderate exercise plan with reasonable goals. Then, build up the exercise intensity, and frequency over time.
- Michael Otto, co-author of the book Exercise for Mood and Anxiety: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhanced Well-Being says “Many people skip the workout at the very time it has the greatest payoff. That prevents you from noticing just how much better you feel when you exercise,” he says. “Failing to exercise when you feel bad is like explicitly not taking an aspirin when your head hurts. That’s the time you get the payoff.”