The benefits of exercise for mental health are real. Activity spurs the release of proteins that cause nerve cells to grow and make new connections—improving brain function. The result? It can make you feel better.

A Hong Kong-based writer and editor wasn’t convinced until she tried it for herself.

“In April of last year, I developed a variety of symptoms,” recalls Becca. “My limbs felt like lead, and I was fatigued all the time, sleeping ten hours a day.” She also struggled with headaches and had trouble concentrating.

“I made my GP run a bunch of very expensive tests, as I was convinced there was something physically wrong with me,” Becca continues. But after the tests revealed she was perfectly healthy, “The doctor told me I had stress, anxiety, or depression, and referred me to a specialist.”

Becca hesitated to make the appointment, in part because she knew she’d likely wait a long time to see the specialist. But her doctor’s comments got her thinking about her busy lifestyle: “I had a lot going on at work, was about to move out of my house, and had been traveling a lot, which meant my routine was very unsettled.” She wondered if stress was causing her mysterious symptoms. 

Stress and Stress Reduction

Stress is a physical and mental response to a threat, demand, or experience. It can contribute to anxiety and depression, two of the most common mental health conditions. Anxiety disorders affect 40 million US adults annually2 (ADAA), and a 2016 study estimated that 16.2 million people in the US experienced a major depressive episode in the last year(NIMH). This does not include the estimated 3-6% of the U. population who have dealt with less severe depression.4 (Sansone)

When Becca realized what might be causing her health issues, her partner suggested they try some stress reduction techniques, including turning off their screens after a certain time, not working too late, and exercising every day. Becca decided to see if these changes made a difference.

Although she’d been working out regularly since moving to Hong Kong in 2015, more recently, Becca had been too busy—and tired—to work out. But she started with gentle, low-impact walks and swims, and fortunately, “I saw improvements quite quickly,” she says. Eventually, Becca built up the stamina that today allows her to run, swim, weight train, and box every week, a combination she credits with keeping her stress levels (and debilitating symptoms) under control.

Since she’s started working out again, “I’ve had a few flare-ups [of symptoms], and this always coincides with work getting busy, me skipping a few workouts, and beginning a spiral of frustration and fatigue.” But “In general, since I began exercising, I feel so much more confident in myself, more capable, and more energized.” 

Get Your Sneakers On

And now, a major new study has confirmed what Becca discovered: regular physical activity improves mental health. In an analysis of data from more than 1.2 million US adults, subjects reported an average of almost 3.4 days of poor mental health in the past month. (The researchers asked study participants about depression, stress, and emotional problems.) However, those who exercised struggled nearly 1.5 fewer days a month, a 43.2% decrease in mental health burden.

The study found that team sports had the strongest effect on mood, lowering the mental health burden by more than 22%. This may be due to “the sociality of structured team sports,” says the study’s first author, Sammi Chekroud, a PhD student at the Oxford Centre for Human Brain Activity, part of the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging in Oxford. “Given feelings of isolation or loneliness that are often expressed by individuals with mood disorders, it’s possible that structured exercise with other individuals helps to improve pro-sociality and reduces some of the symptoms of low mood,” he explains. Cycling and aerobic and gym activities also reduced the mental health burden by more than 20%.

But a lack of athletic skill is no barrier to reaping the benefits: Walking reduces the number of days of poor mental health by more than 17%, and even household chores lowered the mental health burden by about 10%. Mind-body practices like yoga and tai chi are also effective.

And if you prefer solo jogs to volleyball games, that’s fine, too: “I think it’s also possible that the optimal exercise varies across individuals,” Dr. Chekroud adds. “It’s important individuals find an exercise they enjoy and can fit into their routine without stressing them out. This will help [them] stick with it.” 

Exercise Benefits People With Depression, Too

Study participants who’d ever been diagnosed with depression had nearly 11 days of poor mental health a month. But the exercisers in this group had just over seven days of poor mental health.

Chicago-based freelance writer Micco can attest to the power of working out. She’s benefitted greatly from weight training, as well as from the medication she takes for depression and anxiety: “I really think weight training releases feel-good chemicals in my brain, but I also think there’s a mental shift that happens when you see what your body is able to do and you take a moment to bask in that,” she says. “It’s hard for that confidence not to translate into other areas of your life.”

“I have a mental illness. I’m always going to have a mental illness,” Micco adds. “My life is very different when I’m not on medication, and I’ve known that for a long time. But weight training has definitely proven a useful tool in managing my mental health—on or off medication.”

Some doctors encourage patients with mental health conditions to exercise. Lynn is a New York-based freelancer who takes an anti-depressant in the winter for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and exercises regularly. She recalls, “The psychiatrist who prescribed Zoloft for me was the first person to tell me I needed to exercise aerobically for 25 minutes, at least five times weekly, for the medication to be effective.” 

How Exercise Boosts Mood

Researchers have proposed (and studied) several theories about how physical activity might trigger mood improvements. Exercise may:

  1. Subdue responses from both the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the fight-or-flight reaction) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the hormonal feedback system that reacts to stress.
  2. Work like an antidepressant, increasing levels of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) like serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain, thus boosting mood.
  3. Prompt the release of endorphins, naturally-occurring opioids produced by the body.
  4. Enhance people’s sense of self-efficacy (belief in oneself as capable), which reduces anxiety.
  5. Distract from thoughts and stressors, which also reduces anxiety. 5,6 

More Is Not Better

You don’t have to run a marathon to boost your mental and emotional wellbeing, and perhaps you shouldn’t. While more vigorous exercise provides greater benefit than light or moderate physical activity, people who work out for between 30 and 60 minutes, three to five times a week, have the lowest mental health burden. A 45-minute session appears to be most effective.

“We were quite surprised to find the effect we saw in terms of duration or frequency,” Dr. Chekroud observes. “Typically, it’s been thought that more exercise is better for your health, but this maybe suggests that, at least for your mental health, this isn’t necessarily the case.” In fact, the researchers found that people who exercise for more than six hours a week have a higher mental health burden than those who exercise three to five times a week and exercising for more than three hours at a time is associated with worse mental health than not exercising at all.

Why is the 45 minute, three-to-five times a week workout so therapeutic? “It’s possible this is because those durations are easier to fit into normal routines without taking over too much, encouraging people to stick with it for long enough to have any possible benefits manifest,” Chekroud offers.

Whatever the reason, some vigorous physical activity may be just what you need: “Exercise always boosts my mood,” Lynn says. In fact, “Two days ago is a great example. I was very ruffled and had tons of anxiety. I got myself to the gym and got on the rowing machine for four minutes and the elliptical machine for a half hour.” After that brief session, “I left the gym feeling transformed. My anxiety was gone. I had more energy. My head was clear. I felt good. I got home and got to work.”

So, if exercise for weight loss doesn’t motivate you, perhaps moving for your mind will!

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Last Updated: Apr 4, 2019