Exercise is not all about keeping physically fit, growing muscles, and increasing aerobic capacity. Regular exercise has been demonstrated to improve mental health and boost brain power in a variety of ways.
Not only does exercise release a load of chemicals and hormones to help us feel good about ourselves, but the social benefits and increase in self-confidence can also enhance our mental well-being. This can help protect against mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, as well as reducing stress in our increasingly busy lives.
So, get inspired to jump on that treadmill and pump those weights by checking out our in-depth guide to the exercise-mental health link. We have divided our article into three distinct sections, the science stuff to explain the science behind exercising and mental health, the personality factors and social benefits.
The Science Stuff
Without getting too technical, taking part in exercise release an array of positive chemicals which can influence our mood and levels of happiness.
Exercise releases endorphins, happy chemicals that are known to create feelings of happiness, euphoria, and bliss. Endorphins have countless benefits with research even suggesting they can alleviate feelings of depression and anxiety.
Doctors will regularly recommend that anyone suffering from depression, or even just feeling a little down, do some form of regular exercise to get those endorphins flowing. Even just 30 minutes of exercise every couple of days can boost your overall mood.
This improved mood and happiness can help us in several ways. It can improve social relationships, self-esteem, productivity, and sleep.
Struggling to write that report due next week? Exercise doesn’t just build your body muscles. A hard cardio workout has been demonstrated to produce high-levels of a brain-derived protein called BDNF. This protein is linked to decision-making, increased levels of thinking, and improved learning. Yes, it builds your mind muscles!
If that’s not enough, a hard cardio blast can even create new brain cells, taking you one step closer to that Nobel Prize.
The brain loves dopamine, releasing it at any opportunity including during exercise. Dopamine can bring about loads of positive mental feelings including positive well-being and even counter negative mental states. The more exercise we do, the more dopamine the brain releases.
Exercise can also counter addictions that stem from dopamine release in detrimental behaviors. Even short exercise sessions can distract from drug or alcohol addictions. It can even negate the sleep disruption caused by such addictions by resetting our internal body clock.
Research has suggested that regular exercise may lower the likelihood of anxiety or depression by 25%. Part of the reason is the release of norepinephrine, a chemical known for helping the brain cope with stress.
It may seem counter-intuitive that stressing out the body can reduce stress, but exposing the body to the right kind of stress can make the mind more resilient. Despite an initial spike in stress response hormones, exercise can actually help lower levels of stress hormones such as cortisol.
Even a 30-minute walk can provide relief from day-to-day stresses, releasing good chemicals and providing a distraction. The increased levels of norepinephrine enhance your brains’ ability to deal with future stresses, moderating those stress hormones.
The Personality Factors
Looking good, feeling healthy, and a positive mindset are all traits of high self-esteem. Oddly enough, they’re also all benefits of regular exercise. Feeling good and knowing what you’re doing is good for it can enhance self-esteem and confidence.
It goes without saying that exercise is much more beneficial for your self-esteem than sitting in front of a TV screen every night. Exercise can greatly improve your body image through increased bone and muscle strength, boosting energy levels, and lowering blood pressure. A direct result of this is a boost in self-esteem.
Society is obsessed with body image, which makes looking good important for our self-confidence. Regular exercise can control weight gain and tone muscle improving our appearance. Research suggests that improved self-image can have a really positive effect on self-esteem.
Exercising outdoors has been suggested to have an even bigger impact on our self-esteem. The attractive scenery and possibly vitamin D from the sun can improve the quality of our workout. So with a better workout comes better body image, which of course leads to improved self-esteem.
There’s no exact amount of exercise required to improve self-esteem and self-confidence, but 150-300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity, all-round activity is enough to boost physical, and thus mental, health.
Instead of finishing our workout with a cool-down and shower, research suggests we might be better off tapping into our creative side. Working out can boost creativity and thinking power for up to 2 hours afterward. Maybe this is the time to design your new bathroom, or kickstart that art career you’ve dreamt of?
A good night’s sleep can have a really positive effect on our mental health and personality. It can boost our mental performance and productivity, keeping us alert and reducing stress. It has health benefits too increasing heart health and giving the body time to repair itself after a long day.
Exercise can improve sleep efficiency (the amount of time spent asleep whilst in bed) helping us be alert, stress-free, and productive the next day. Early morning and afternoon exercise can help reset our sleep-wake cycle. By raising our body temperature whilst exercising, then allowing it to drop hours later, exercise can trigger sleepiness at just the right time.
Exercise in the early evening may also be beneficial to some of us, simply tiring us out to the point we get home and collapse on the bed!
The Social Aspect
We’ve already seen how exercise can improve our self-esteem and self-confidence, poor body image and low self-esteem can affect how you interact with others too. By increasing these through exercise you can improve your self-confidence when making new relationships, whether they are romantic, friendly, or professional.
Positive social relationships through increased self-confidence can boost your productivity at work, increase your quality of life, and build your social support network. All this from a few hours on the treadmill! That’s worth it, right?
2. New Social Groups
Working out in a class or taking part in a new sport can build your friendship group through exposure to another social group full of people who enjoy the same exercises as you. Whether it’s a Pilates class, cycling club, or soccer team, a new group of friends and an increase in social interaction can really enhance our mental well-being.
Studies show that we thrive off exercising in a group, with workout buddies encouraging better performance on aerobic exercises. Whether it be a result of inspiring each other or just being overly competitive, working out with others can deliver better results at any level.
3. Improved/Increased Social Interactions
For exercise such as walking or running, finding a workout buddy is sometimes preferable. This can improve the amount we interact with our friends, be it through virtual workouts, or going for a walk together.
The increase in time spent together can help form closer bonds and improve social interaction with our friends. The increased social interaction and engaging conversations can have a positive impact on our mental well-being and can also act as a motivator to do more exercise.
Whether it’s being smarter, increased self-esteem, or improved social life, exercise can do so much more than reducing your waist size and giving you great abs.
There is no magic number for how much exercise you need to do to reap the mental health benefits. Somewhere between 150-300 minutes a week is recommended, but the key is to find an exercise you enjoy. Whether it is joining a sports club, working out in a gym, or just going for a walk with a friend, exercise can play a crucial role in maintaining a healthy mind and improving mental well-being.