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7 Ways Exercise Can Boost Your Mental Health

Studies find exercise improves your mood, helps depression and eases anxiety


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For all the focus on looking and feeling fit, it would be easy to miss how much of a boon exercise is for mental health.

Besides increasing muscle tone and endurance, cardio and strength training can, quite literally, change your mind. Research finds that regular physical activity can essentially make your brain more nimble, even enhancing the organ’s ability to form neural connections so you’re better able to handle everything coming at you.

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Although there are many mysteries about the body-mind link, what’s clear is that whether you’re running, swimming or lifting weights, exercise can bolster your mental health in many dynamic ways. Here are seven:

1. Changing your brain

If you’ve ever felt like you were firing on all cylinders after a workout, you might be benefiting from the way workouts can change your brain.

By being active, you can support cellular growth in the brain and make more of those neural connections. Exercise enhances all of this neuroplasticity, explains Abigail Norouzinia, senior instructor and psychologist with the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in the Department of Psychiatry. And it improves brain function, as a 2020 review of research in animals and human found.

That can make a person better equipped to respond to setbacks and adapt. This new growth in the brain is important to help us learn things, which is so important in therapy, Norouzinia says. “Because what we’re doing in therapy is we’re helping people learn to think ... [and] behave in new ways.”

2. Boosting your mood

Exercise can also improve a person’s mood in a hurry.

“There’s immediate changes that occur in the brain,” says Ben Singh, a research fellow in physical activity at the University of South Australia, Adelaide.

Singh led a research review published in February 2023 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that found exercise was “highly beneficial” in reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety and distress. In part, that’s because being physically active leads to an infusion of feel-good hormones in the brain. “It can increase endorphin release,” Singh notes, and raise serotonin and dopamine levels as well.

3. Helping with emotion regulation

Of course, quickly emptying a bag of candy might boost your mood, too. That is, before the sugar crash. What makes exercise any different? What’s to keep this mood enhancer from becoming a mood tease?

Neurological changes can make the positive effect exercise has on your brain more sustainable, research has found. People get additional benefit from the discipline of working out. The very act of pushing through a workout when you don’t feel like it reinforces your ability to handle uncomfortable emotions without avoiding them.

“Exercise in and of itself can be helpful because it teaches people how to tolerate distress in a way that mimics higher levels of arousal that can feel similar to anxiety,” Norouzinia says. She explains that this exposes a person to uncomfortable sensations in a way that’s safe. In the mental health field, this practice of engaging feared sensations in a controlled way that’s therapeutic is called interoceptive exposure, and it enhances a person’s ability to tolerate uncomfortable sensations that they’ve likely previously avoided.

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This can be helpful for addressing depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance use disorders and personality disorders, Norouzinia says — or really any mental health challenge in which a person is trying to avoid feeling a particular emotion.

4. Strengthening the mind-body connection

Truly conceiving how exercise is mentally — not just physically — beneficial requires a radical shift from thinking of the mind and body as separate, experts say.

“Basically there isn’t as much of a division between mental health and physical health as our culture and language can sometimes lead us to believe,” says Marina Weiss, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Innovation in Mental Health, based at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy.

The brain and body are connected in many ways, for example, through the vagus nerve. The mother of all cranial nerves comes down from the brain through the spinal column and carries signals from the brain all over the body, including to the heart, lungs and digestive system. It also carries feedback from all over the body back to the brain.

Stimulating the vagus nerve through exercise has been shown to strengthen the mind-body connection and help with everything from treatment-resistant depression to PTSD.

5. Increasing heart rate variability

One measure of health is the range our heart rate can safely vary from resting to exertion.

Heart rate variability is also considered an indicator for that complex brain-body interaction — showing how strong that connection is. Exercise improves heart rate variability.  

Increasing heart rate variability can help protect us against mental health issues such as depression, even when we’re faced with other stressors, such as a cancer diagnosis, Weiss notes.

High-intensity interval training — bursts of intense exercise followed by intervals of slower, less-demanding work — in particular, can increase this range in heart rate. HIIT training can be helpful even for adults who haven’t been getting near the recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week, as a study published in the Journal of Exercise Science & Fitness found.

Just make sure to check with a doctor before starting any new regimen and ease into it.

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6. Improving body image

Given that body image concerns, such as dysmorphia, are often related to perception, there may be a tendency to dismiss people’s hang-ups with their physical appearance as always being just that. But researchers in exercise science and mental health find that it’s not simply an either/or proportion. Instead, treating underlying mental health disorders and leaning into exercise in a healthy way can both be helpful to improve body image.

When people become more active, it tends to increase their confidence in their ability to achieve significant goals. Scientists call this exercise self-efficacy, and it’s associated with improved body image, according to a recent research analysis evaluating the role of exercise in managing mental health disorders that was published in the Annual Review of Medicine.

Splitting the hair further, one study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health scored exercisers based on whether they were committed to their routines versus being fixated on the idea that they had to exercise. The study also evaluated those who didn’t exercise regularly. The researchers reported that “the Committed Exercisers (high on exercise frequency but low on exercise fixation) consistently showed significantly higher levels of self-esteem [and] body satisfaction.”

So rather than fixating on the idea that you must exercise, try to exercise for the fun of it and do something you enjoy. You’ll feel better about yourself and be more likely to continue with this healthy behavior.

7. Being social

The “epidemic of loneliness” outlined by the surgeon general, which disproportionately affects older adults, might seem separate from concerns about this same group not getting adequate exercise. But it’s possible to attack both problems at once. Working out with a friend can help people feel more motivated, adventurous and consistent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some research has found working out with others is especially beneficial for older adults. One Japanese study found that older adults who exercised twice a week or more with others had a lower risk of developing cognitive impairment than those who worked out alone or not at all.

“Most people want to be part of something bigger than themselves, connected in some way,” notes Patrick J. Smith, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who cowrote the research review published in the Annual Review of Medicine.

He recommends starting with an easier activity rather than trying to hit it out of the park on your first go. And if it seems daunting to just head out the door to start exercising on your own, don’t. Join a group instead at your local gym, or invite a friend or family member to exercise with you, which can be an incentive to start and stick with a new regimen. Check out AARP’s Staying Fit page for dozens of workouts, including cardio, strength, walking, balance and core.

You can always increase your commitment to eventually reach or exceed the recommendation of at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week. Try a brisk walk or more, and make sure to work toward including strength training and cardio. Smith and other experts stress that any physical activity is better than nothing — and having others to exercise with you can make all the difference.

“Build it into your routine,” Smith suggests, “in some way that you find yourself looking forward to it.”

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