Updated: May 15
Physical exercise has been shown to have numerous positive effects on mental health. Exercise has been found to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, improve mood, boost self-esteem, and reduce stress.
There are a number of ways in which exercise can benefit mental health. For example, exercise causes the release of endorphins, which are natural chemicals in the body that act as painkillers and mood elevators. Exercise also increases the production of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, which are all involved in regulating mood and reducing stress. Regular exercise has also been found to improve cognitive function and memory, as well as reduce the risk of developing age-related cognitive decline and dementia.
It is important to note that the benefits of exercise on mental health are not limited to intense workouts or lengthy gym sessions. Even light to moderate exercise, such as a brisk walk or gentle yoga, can be effective in improving mental health.
Keep reading to learn more about how to use fitness to manage anxiety and depression.
I heard this trainer the other day someone was asking them if exercise could be used to help manage mental and emotional distresses so basically as a tool like for depression and anxiety etc and the trainer said absolutely not. And I completely disagree with that. I think that exercise can be comparable to taking a walk in the sunshine. Both of those things are releasing endorphins that are going to change your mindset and switches something in the brain to make you feel happier. There's a fine line right? Because there is such a thing as fitness addiction and we don't want to get there. We don't want to quote outrun a bad diet unquote or punish ourselves through exercise. We want to find something that we enjoy doing and when we're feeling down or we're feeling overwhelmed we can turn to that and utilize that as an outlet as a tool to help shift our mindset in that moment and focus on enjoyment in the little things of life such as moving your body.
Either way, let's take a closer look for science's sake.
What does research suggest about physical exercise and mental health?
Exercise can reduce symptoms of depression: Multiple studies have shown that regular exercise can reduce symptoms of depression. In fact, one study found that exercise can be just as effective as medication or therapy for treating mild to moderate depression.
Exercise can reduce symptoms of anxiety: Regular exercise has also been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety. One study found that exercise was effective in reducing symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, and another study found that exercise was effective in reducing symptoms of panic disorder.
Exercise can improve mood: Exercise has been found to increase positive mood and reduce negative mood. This effect has been observed across a range of populations, including healthy individuals, individuals with depression or anxiety, and individuals with chronic illnesses.
Exercise can boost self-esteem: Regular exercise has been found to improve self-esteem and body image, particularly in women.
Exercise can reduce stress: Exercise has been found to reduce stress and improve coping skills. One study found that exercise was effective in reducing stress and anxiety in individuals who had experienced traumatic events.
Exercise can improve cognitive function: Regular exercise has been found to improve cognitive function, including attention, memory, and executive function. This effect has been observed across the lifespan, from children to older adults.
Overall, research suggests that physical exercise can have a significant positive impact on mental health.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a natural human emotion that is characterized by feelings of fear, worry, and unease. Anxiety can be a normal response to a stressful situation, such as an upcoming exam or job interview. However, when anxiety becomes excessive or persistent and interferes with daily life, it may be classified as an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are a group of mental health disorders that are characterized by excessive and persistent feelings of fear, worry, or anxiety. There are several types of anxiety disorders, including:
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): A condition characterized by excessive and persistent worry about a range of everyday issues, such as health, finances, and relationships.
Panic disorder: A condition characterized by sudden and intense feelings of fear, known as panic attacks, that are often accompanied by physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, sweating, and shortness of breath.
Social anxiety disorder: A condition characterized by intense fear or anxiety in social situations, such as public speaking or meeting new people.
Specific phobias: A condition characterized by intense fear or anxiety about a specific object or situation, such as heights, spiders, or flying.
Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health disorders, affecting millions of people worldwide. Treatment for anxiety disorders often involves a combination of medication and psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
What is depression?
Depression is a mental health disorder characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and loss of interest or pleasure in activities that were once enjoyable. Depression can affect a person's mood, thoughts, and behavior, and can interfere with daily life.
Symptoms of depression can vary from person to person, but common symptoms include:
Persistent sadness or feelings of emptiness
Loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable
Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
Fatigue and decreased energy
Changes in appetite or weight
Sleep disturbances, such as insomnia or oversleeping
Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
Thoughts of suicide or self-harm
Depression can have a significant impact on a person's quality of life and can lead to problems with relationships, work, and daily activities. It is important to seek professional help if you are experiencing symptoms of depression. Treatment for depression often involves a combination of medication and psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or interpersonal therapy (IPT). Other treatments, such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), may be recommended for individuals who do not respond to other forms of treatment.
How does exercise affect anxiety and depression?
Exercise has been shown to have a positive impact on both anxiety and depression. Here are some of the ways in which exercise can affect these conditions:
Increases the production of mood-boosting neurotransmitters: Exercise has been shown to increase the production of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, which are all involved in regulating mood and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Reduces stress and cortisol levels: Exercise has been found to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can contribute to symptoms of anxiety and depression. Exercise can also help individuals better manage stress, which can reduce the likelihood of developing these conditions.
Improves self-esteem: Regular exercise has been found to improve self-esteem, which can be particularly beneficial for individuals with depression or anxiety.
Provides a sense of accomplishment: Regular exercise can provide a sense of accomplishment and control, which can help individuals feel more empowered and reduce feelings of helplessness that can contribute to depression and anxiety.
Promotes social interaction: Exercise can be a social activity, such as group fitness classes or team sports, which can provide opportunities for social interaction and social support. Social support can be beneficial for both anxiety and depression.
The Mayo Clinic states:
Doing 30 minutes or more of exercise a day for three to five days a week may significantly improve depression or anxiety symptoms. But smaller amounts of physical activity — as little as 10 to 15 minutes at a time — may make a difference. It may take less time exercising to improve your mood when you do more-vigorous activities, such as running or bicycling.
The mental health benefits of exercise and physical activity may last only if you stick with it over the long term — another good reason to focus on finding activities that you enjoy.
Overall, exercise can be a valuable tool in managing symptoms of anxiety and depression. However, it is important to note that exercise should not be used as a sole treatment for these conditions and individuals should seek professional help if they are experiencing persistent or severe symptoms.
How to use Fitness to Manage Anxiety and Depression
If you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression, incorporating fitness into your routine can be an effective way to manage these conditions. Here are some tips on how to use fitness to manage anxiety and depression:
Start small and set realistic goals: It can be helpful to start with small, achievable fitness goals and gradually build up. This can help you avoid feeling overwhelmed or discouraged. For example, you could start with a 10-minute walk each day and gradually increase to longer walks or runs.
Find an activity you enjoy: It is important to find a type of fitness activity that you enjoy, as this can increase motivation and make it more likely that you will stick with it. Some examples of activities include walking, running, cycling, swimming, yoga, or dance.
Incorporate fitness into your routine: Try to incorporate fitness into your daily routine, such as taking a walk on your lunch break or doing yoga before bed. This can help make fitness a regular part of your routine.
Use fitness as a form of self-care: Viewing fitness as a form of self-care can help you prioritize it in your routine. For example, you could think of going for a run as taking care of yourself both physically and mentally.
Seek support: Consider finding a workout buddy or joining a fitness group or class. This can provide social support and motivation, which can be particularly beneficial for managing symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Be kind to yourself: It is important to be kind to yourself and not push yourself too hard. If you miss a workout or don't achieve a fitness goal, try not to be too hard on yourself. Remember that any amount of physical activity can be beneficial for managing symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Overall, incorporating fitness into your routine can be an effective way to manage symptoms of anxiety and depression. It is important to remember that fitness should not be used as a sole treatment for these conditions, and seeking professional help is important if you are experiencing persistent or severe symptoms.
Physical exercise has long-term physical AND mental health benefits. I highly recommend finding a kind of exercise you really enjoy to help you stick with it longer. And if you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety or depression, please reach out to SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357) (also known as the Treatment Referral Routing Service), or TTY: 1-800-487-4889 is a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations.