Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

Mental Health Benefits of Exercise. Psychology Fanatic article header image

Over the decades a large flow of supporting data, not to mention common sense, has shown that exercise improves our physical well-being. Movement combats the ill-effects of a sedentary lifestyle. Our employment and entertainment have morphed over the last century, Shifting from activity of the body to activity of the mind. We can accomplish more sitting on our butts than walking around the office. Our children have been safely moved from the bicycles, and basketball courts to the highly controlled environment in front of the game console, mesmerized by extreme activity on the screen controlled with the simple push of a few buttons. Overweight, depressed and full of anxiety we need a healthy cure to our ailments. Research shows that the mental health benefits of exercise may help with a variety of common disorders.

Exercise provides a boost, improving well-being and aiding recovery from some of the mild to moderate mental disorders intruding on our lives. However, despite “overwhelming evidence showing extensive health benefits of physical exercise” too few people engage in regular programs of exercise (Grasdalsmoen, et al., 2020). We need to get up, get out and start moving.

Scientific Support of Exercise and Mental Health 

Over the past couple decades, science has been taking a hard look at exercise-based treatments for a variety of mental health ailments. The studies largely conclude that exercise is an effective treatment, alleviating many symptoms and improving overall well-being. However, more chronic and severe mental illnesses were impervious to the benefits. Exercise also works better as a treatment than a prevention (Jewell. 2010Pauluska & Schwenk, 2012). So, there are some limitations to the magic pill of movement; but the overall prognosis is good. Exercise improves our lives, heightens self-image, lengthens our longevity, prevents illness, and treats many forms of mild and moderate mental illness.

“Exercise improves our lives, heightens self-image, lengthens our longevity, prevents illness, and treats many forms of mild and moderate mental illness.”

~T. Franklin Murphy

Studies show that “physical exercise can generate several physiological changes and mechanisms in body, which in turn may lower stress levels, or buffer the stress response which may protect against the negative health effects of stress, and improve mood and positive affect” (Grasdalsmoen, et al., 2020).

Motivation and Exercise

Knowledge, however, doesn’t seem to push us off the couch. The soft cushions beckon our tired bodies to rest after a long day fighting the grind of a competitive world. More knowledge fails to motivate our gym attendance more than a few weeks following the repeated New Year’s resolution to get back to the gym.

Depression and Anxiety have a negative draw on our motivation, holding us back rather than pushing us forward (See Anxiety, Depression and Inactivity). We encounter the classic confrontation between body and mind. The mind says, “do it,” the body retorts, “wait, let’s do it later.” Eventually the body wins, converts the mind and we justify our way smoothly out of the conflict.

​See Sinful Desires for more on this topic

Exercise Assists  Other Life Changes

​With all the long and short-term benefits, this is a battle worth waging. Procrastination and justification should not be allowed to intervene on this important issue. We must draw a line. Enough is enough. We can’t succeed in life if we can’t confront the beasts interfering with forward movement. Exercise is a springboard to many other habits of well-being. Exercise improves self-image and confidence while providing a healthy escape. And exercise has also been shown as a helpful treatment for addictions (Somkuwar, et al. 2015Morais, et al. 2018). If there is a single addition to our lives we should make to enjoy many mental health benefits, exercise ranks at the top of the list.

Limited Mental Resources

We have limited resources to direct towards change. We can’t recreate our lives in a week. There are too many avenues demanding attention. We are limited. Instead of failing, we often bury our heads in distractions and continue with the frustrations of our life. We string out the disappointments from adolescence to the grave. Largely living a life of quiet desperation. (See Quiet Life of Desperation).  Exercise is a positive step towards the exit of this confining entrapment of sameness.

​See Ego Depletion for more on this topic

Any Type of Exercise Benefits Mental Health

Among the studies, an interesting finding was that the type of exercise didn’t matter. This is important because it allows us to choose a path that fits best with our personality. If you don’t enjoy the program, it will continually demand mental resources to maintain. However, if we find something we enjoy, eventually it gives without taking. From weight resistance, to cardio, to martial arts, the possibilities are endless. We can workout in a gym or at home. We can do wind sprints or take a walk. Yoga, Tai-Chi, and boot camps all add to our well-being.

A Few Words By Psychology Fanatic

Despite the growing evidence of the many mental health benefits of exercise, many, if not most, mental health providers do not prescribe exercise as a treatment (Garvey, et al., 2023). Perhaps, they may make passing mention to “taking a walk” or suggest exercise in general, but they fail to actually assist the client with integrating exercise into their daily life.

In conclusion, we can partake of the mental health benefits of exercise when we start to move, getting off the couch and walking, running, or playing. Some benefits are realized immediately from the smallest changes. Other benefits accrue over time. Keep moving, add something small, and then enjoy the lasting benefits of exercise for your body and mind.

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Garvey, L., Benson, A., Benger, D., Short, T., Banyard, H., & Edward, K. (2023). The perceptions of mental health clinicians integrating exercise as an adjunct to routine treatment of depression and anxiety. International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, 32(2), 502-512.

Grasdalsmoen, M., Eriksen, H., Lønning, K., & Sivertsen, B. (2020). Physical exercise, mental health problems, and suicide attempts in university students. BMC Psychiatry, 20(1).

Jewell, J. (2010). The Effect of Exercise on Mental Health. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 9(4), 202-207.

Morais, A., Pita, I., Fontes‐Ribeiro, C., & Pereira, F. (2018). The neurobiological mechanisms of physical exercise in methamphetamine addiction. CNS: Neuroscience and Therapeutics, 24(2), 85-97.

Paluska, S., & Schwenk, T. (2012). Physical Activity and Mental Health. Sports Medicine, 29(3), 167-180.

Somkuwar, S., Staples, M., Fannon, M., Ghofranian, A., & Mandyam, C. (2015). Evaluating Exercise as a Therapeutic Intervention for Methamphetamine Addiction-Like Behavior1. Brain Plasticity, 1(1), 63-81.

Spiotta, A.M., Fargen, K.M., Patel, .S., Larrew, .T., & Turner, R.D. (2019). Impact of a Residency-Integrated Wellness Program on Resident Mental Health, Sleepiness, and Quality of Life. Neurosurgery, 84(2).

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