Do you feel calmer after a run? More cheerful after a vigorous game of volleyball? A large new study1 has confirmed what many exercisers already know: regular physical activity improves mental health.

According to the analysis of data from more than 1.2 million US adults, people averaged almost 3.4 days of poor mental health (including bouts of depression, stress, and emotional problems) in the past month. However, those who exercised struggled nearly 1.5 fewer days, a more than 43% decrease in the monthly mental health burden.

Exercise can help people with depression, too. Among those who’d ever been diagnosed with depression, exercisers had just over seven days of poor mental health a month, almost four days fewer than the non-exercisers.

While certain activities offer greater mental health benefits than others (monthly mental health burden is lowered by 22% with popular team sports, vs. 10% with household chores), what’s most important is that you chose an exercise you enjoy.

“This will help you stick with it,” says study 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, England.

Not sure that breaking a sweat will improve your mood? These exercisers’ accounts of the value of regular physical activity might change your mind…

Jogging for Anxiety and Depression: Almost as Good as Sleep

Margaret lives in Ohio and has struggled with anxiety since childhood. Exercise, along with the antidepressant she has been taking since a bout of postpartum depression, has been invaluable to her. “I can tell when I’ve gone a few days without exercise,” she says. “I am restless, fretful, grouchy. At some point, I realized that it’s not actually problem A or B that’s getting to me—it’s that I need to exercise. It’s a totally reliable remedy.”

Article continues below

Worried you may be suffering from high stress?

Take our 2-minute stress level quiz to see if you could benefit from further diagnosis and treatment.

Take Stress Quiz

While Margaret takes a weekly yoga/Pilates class, uses an elliptical, and weight trains at a gym, “nothing is as reliably magic for me as jogging.” She’s been hitting the road since her teens: “I stumbled into it worrying about body image and discovered it had a transformative effect on my mental health. … Jogging is highly meditative for me. I have thought that when my mind is wound up tight like a spiral, I jog my way out of the spiral and back into space. It makes me energized and happy and puts any problem into perspective. It’s almost as good as sleep!”

Kickboxing for Anxiety, Panic, and PTSD: A Game Changer

Nashville-based Rachel has anxiety, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Regular therapy, workouts on an elliptical machine, and kickboxing are important parts of her treatment. She says, “The cardio has helped me feel less anxious, I’m able to think more clearly. There’s something about physically releasing the stress that calms me down. I feel heavier, [more] easily overwhelmed during weeks I don’t work out.”

But it’s her weekly kickboxing lesson that “has been a game-changer in many ways. I feel stronger and braver knowing I could injure someone if I needed to.” She adds, “I also held tension in my legs and fists from hypervigilance [being highly responsive to perceived dangers] and past trauma, so getting that out physically has allowed those muscles to relax. I have less physical pain thanks to regular kickboxing.”

Rachel kickboxing away her anxiety in her local gym.

Weight Training for an Eating Disorder

Micco in Chicago relies on exercise as well as medication to help treat her anxiety and depression. And as someone who has recovered from an eating disorder, her relationship with exercise is complicated—and inspiring.

“When I started exercising about 13 years ago, I saw it as a way to control my weight and my body,” she recalls. “When I got to my lowest weight, about nine years ago, my hair was falling out. I’d stopped menstruating. And my anxiety was so bad, I was having a hard time being in public. I’d carry a scale in my car, and when I’d panic, I’d leave situations to weigh myself. It’s absurd in hindsight—a memory of someone that I have a hard time recognizing as me.”

Since exercise can help people lose weight, as part of her recovery, Micco limited her workouts to “functional exercising, like bike commuting,” for several years. “It wasn’t until four years ago that I felt okay exercising again.” She hoped cardio workouts might improve her mood, but when it didn’t, “it was hard to feel like exercise was worth prioritizing.”

However, “That changed when [the TV series] GLOW came out in 2017,” Micco says. “I was really inspired by how strong and athletic all the women on GLOW were, regardless of their shapes and sizes. At the same time, I started seeing all these Instagram videos of Alison Brie moving just incredible amounts of weight. I’d see her, and think, “I want to do that.”

“I was also inspired by an essay [GLOW co-star] Betty Gilpin wrote for Glamour about how training for GLOW transformed her relationship with her body. Like her, I have a very hourglass shape, and have always felt alienated by my body and the expectations people place on you for having this kind of shape.”

So Micco started lifting weights. “I wasn’t on medication when I started hitting the weights last summer, and even then my partner could tell the days when I lifted, because I would just be able to take things in stride more when I lifted. Even on medication, he can still tell!”

She continues, “I think part of it is the ritual of being alone with my music and my body and doing something I enjoy that feels like an investment in me. Why wouldn’t that boost my mood? But I also think something physiological happens that makes me… calmer, more patient, more energized. Just happier. I feel more centered and present when I’m regularly lifting.”

“I don’t want to pretend like I’m immune to disappointments or frustrations about my weight—or like my ED (eating disorder) brain has just shut off now that I’m not actively indulging in ED behaviors,” Micco adds. “But it’s hard to dwell on my weight like I used to because I’ve gotten really strong.”

Cardio for General Wellbeing

Jarrett in New York City tries to exercise six or seven times a week, alternating between weight training and cardio exercises like jogging, rowing, biking, and shadowboxing.

While he’s been an exerciser for years, there have been several times when physical activity has been crucial: “I had a very sudden, very serious blood illness in college—it was pretty terrifying,” he recalls. “When I returned to school from the hospital, I was on meds that really messed with my mood, kicking me from highs in the morning to very depressive lows every night, and leading me to gain a lot of weight. I also was behind in all my classes and deeply in love with someone who wasn’t sure what to do about it (it worked out OK: she married me). I didn’t start feeling normal until the doctor cleared me to return to exercising. It was like exercise regulated everything, and put me back in control of my life.

Then, “When I was in grad school in London, my wife had to return to the states to find work,” Jarrett says. He had no classes but spent 10 hours a day studying for exams. “It was a period with very limited human contact and intense intellectual work; I actually started dreaming in math (really).”

He lived too far from school to go to the gym, so Jarrett worked out in the house he was staying in. He used a duffel bag stuffed with textbooks to weight train and did hundreds of pull-ups. “I also went running in a local park, where every day I saw the English winter give way to the English spring—and actually saw people. I cannot imagine getting through that period without that workout routine.”

Finally, “in the past several years, as a husband and father with a stressful job, exercise has been important as a way to set goals and make friends outside of the stratified confines of my professional life.” For instance, “I boxed in the 2009 Golden Gloves [an amateur competition], which let me meet people in the Bronx boxing gym scene, which was amazing. I took up rugby at age 36 and instantly was part of a team’s camaraderie for the first time since high school. At 40, I did a marathon, which required a level of mental and physical discipline I didn’t think I had anymore. When work or family life gets stressful, I think sometimes about those last few miles, the waves of despair and hope that washed over me, and I feel like I can handle whatever is on my plate.”

A Fitness Professional’s Story

E. Emilie Park is an American Council on Exercise (ACE)-certified personal trainer in Kingsport, Tennesse, where she is the owner and managing partner of XCellerated Fitness, LLC.

She’s also a mom of three who, after her last child (now almost 13) was born, found herself about 40 pounds overweight. “I had resigned myself to being a chubby mom,” Park says. “But at 4’11” and 160+ pounds, I wasn’t chubby. My BMI (body mass index) was 34,” putting her in the obese range.

“I had my personal ‘Aha!’ moment when I compared photos of my mom and me at the same age and remembered how sad she was,” Park says. “How unhealthy she felt. How bitter she was about not being the best she could be. As the oldest, I remembered her chronic migraines, her mood swings, and her general unhappiness. It made me a miserable kid, as well.”

Park continues, “And here I was…at that same age, but heavier.” She decided to get fit, and with the help of a trainer at a local gym, started becoming more active. Then, when she discovered the gym was closing, “I said, ‘I’ll save this place!’” And she did.

No longer a chubby mom, Emilie Park (pictured above assisting a client at XCellerated Fitness) says regular exercise not only transformed her body but always lifts her mood and makes her feel good about herself.

Today, it’s been almost 12 years since Park—who had no prior small business experience—bought XCellerated Fitness. She’s also kept off most of her 40+ pound weight loss.

As a trainer, she sees firsthand how exercise affects mood: “I know lots of runners who take the winters off because they don’t like to run indoors. And for the most part, they find themselves in a funk,” she points out. Seasonal affective disorder may play a role, she notes, “but I suspect it’s because the runners miss the endorphin rush they get after a long, solid, challenging run.”

Park’s current routine involves circuit training with weights, as well as high-intensity interval training and other forms of cardio. And like her clients, “I find myself irritable after a hiatus,” in her case, from lifting.

If you’d like to incorporate more regular exercise into your routine, Park has some advice: Getting active is “like any other life-impacting challenge,” she says. “You invest your time, resources, strength, and heart in something you care about. …There are times when you take a break, you rest, you plateau. That makes you human. That gives you time to reflect. And when you’re done, you move on.”

Article Sources
Last Updated: Aug 6, 2019