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5 Ways Exercise Improves Your Mental Health
Can you sweat your way to emotional wellness? Here’s what the science says.
You already know the physical benefits that come from working out regularly. After all, they’re pretty easy to see: strong quads filling out your bike shorts, PRs on your deadlift, faster mile paces—those tangible results all come from putting in the hard work.
But beyond building physical strength, working out can have a lasting impact on your emotional wellness, too. An increasing body of research suggests that the mind-body connection between mental health and exercise is deeper than most people realize. If you’re looking for extra motivation for your next sweat session—or you’re looking for a way to give your mood a lift—here’s what science has to say.
Exercise Eases Anxiety
Ever heard of the “fight-or-flight” response? When you’re surprised or freaked out, your nervous system takes over and you have symptoms like sweaty palms, a racing heart and mild dizziness. In people who experience anxiety, these sensations are interpreted as a reason to feel fearful. But if you read those symptoms and thought “wait, that sounds like me after a bootcamp class”—you’re on to something. Researchers think that people who challenge themselves physically with exercise get used to being in the space where fear and physiological arousal intersect. In that sense, exercise is almost like exposure therapy, helping you get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Then, when anxiety-inducing situations arise, you are so well-prepared it feels like NBD.
Exercise can also help reduce anxiety levels by connecting you with your breath. “Exercise requires breathing regulation, which ultimately will calm the body,” says Chicago-based therapist Sarah Kelly. In simple terms, exercise forces you to take deep breaths and this activates a part of the autonomic nervous system that controls your heart rate and respiration. Lowering both of these things indicates to your brain that any perceived threat is gone, helping you feel less anxious.
Exercise Elevates Mood
Everyone has an exercise “first”: Maybe it was the first time you nailed the crow position in yoga or the time you topped the leaderboard (while rocking a new pair of leggings) in spin class. Those positive vibes you felt stayed with you for the rest of the day. Was that good mood just a coincidence?
Definitely not, says Laura Sgro, a Los Angeles-based therapist. Exercise triggers the release of endorphins, feel-good chemicals in your body. “Not only are endorphins responsible for reducing stress, they help you feel good,” says Sgro. “This is a great example of how the mind and the body are interconnected. When your body feels good, it helps your mind feel good, too.”
And while the mood-boosting effects of exercise can be felt immediately after a workout, they also have long-term implications for your overall life outlook. Active people are less depressed than inactive people, studies show, and people who exercise, then stop, tend to be more depressed than people who maintain their workout routine. One study even concluded that exercise reduces your risk of depression by 25 percent.
Exercise Raises Your Confidence
When you believe you have the skills and capacity to achieve certain milestones, your odds of doing so are significantly higher than if you start from a place of self-doubt. For example, believing you have the ability to complete a 10K—or nail a new PR—puts you that much closer to making it happen than a person who starts with the attitude that it’s impossible and they shouldn’t even bother lacing up their running shoes.
“Human beings are generally oriented to succeed with positive reinforcement,” says Kelly. “If someone exercises or moves their body in a way that is enjoyable or brings positive results, they will be more likely to continue engaging in that activity. To take this further, if someone finds that they set one goal and achieve it, such as running their first 5K, they will be more likely to set other goals.”
Exercise Encourages Friendships
Whether you’re heading out for a run with friends or taking a weekly boxing class, exercise provides opportunities to meet new people and make more friends. Socializing, science shows, releases a blend of neurotransmitters like oxytocin and dopamine that help regulate anxiety and stress.
“In addition to helping you feel better about yourself, which naturally enhances your social experiences, exercise can create a sense of camaraderie,” says Sgro. “That's why so many people benefit when they have an accountability buddy or take a group fitness class—not only can another person help to keep you accountable to your goals, but there's a natural connection that can build from the shared experience of exercise.”
Exercise Helps You Cope With Life
Instead of having an extra drink (or three) or pulling the covers over your head, exercise gives you a healthy tool for coping with stressful times. “Exercise is a really great coping skill because it serves so many functions,” says Sgro. “It's a way to distract yourself, to relieve stress, to feel that release of endorphins and adrenaline and to do something that's healthy and productive for your body. Whether you're feeling anxious, depressed, angry, ashamed or anything else, exercise can help refocus your attention on something more positive while also releasing some of those feel-good chemicals into your brain.”
The beauty of working out and emotional wellness is that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: The more you sweat, the better you feel, and the better you feel, the more you want to work out. It just takes a single step to get started.