We all know about the physical benefits of exercise — heart health, weight loss, muscle development, cancer prevention, to name a few — but did you know that exercise has been scientifically proven to offer several mental health benefits as well?
Exercise releases endorphins, a group of hormones that cause that feeling of accomplishment when we complete a tough workout and the upbeat attitude that we carry for the rest of our day as a result. These experiences are often referred to as “runner’s high,” but you can experience that same euphoric sensation from any type of vigorous, cardiovascular activity like cycling and aerobics.
Here’s a look at five key psychological benefits of regular exercise:
Exercising after a long, stressful day might be the furthest thing on your mind, but it can actually be incredibly alleviating. According to the Mayo Clinic, physical exertion helps your brain boost production of endorphins and diverts your attention away from stressors like work, family or money.
Stress and anxiety can also contribute to insomnia, which creates a host of other health problems. Studies show that exercise can help people with chronic insomnia not only to fall asleep faster, but improves the quality of their sleep.
Boosts our mood:
Research shows that regular exercise helps your brain release feel-good chemicals like endorphins, neurotransmitters and endocannabinoids and reduces the production of immune system chemicals that trigger or worsen depression.
Plus, the increase in body temperature with moderate or vigorous activity can have an overall calming effect on the body. Exercising outdoors also helps to ensure that you are getting enough vitamin D, which your body absorbs through sun exposure. Scientists have linked low vitamin D levels with seasonal affective disorder, asthma, and chronic pain.
Several studies show that exercise helps us counter the effects of aging on the brain. A study conducted at the University of British Columbia found that regular aerobic exercise boosts the size of the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in verbal memory and learning.
A separate study in the UK yielded similar findings, demonstrating that exercise can keep us sharper mentally as we age and has the potential to combat the onset of Alzheimer’s.
After only two years, a study presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference showed that people who improved their diet and level of exercise saw improvements in memory and other mental functions.
In addition to the mood and memory-boosting benefits of exercise, it can also boost our energy levels and our sense of creativity.
A Swedish study found that workers who took time for regular exercise were more productive than their sedentary counterparts who worked longer and didn’t exercise at all.
Another study revealed that aerobic exercise stimulates our imaginations. If you’ve ever had a light bulb moment while running, biking or walking briskly, then you’ve experienced this phenomenon firsthand. Just as exercising outside offers exposure to vitamin D, a change of scenery may be just what you need for inspiration.
Depressed or anxious people often feel a lack of control in their lives, but they should first try committing to regular exercise to help them regain a sense of power and boost feelings of self-worth. Even those of us who don’t suffer from depression or anxiety can benefit from exercise.
Interestingly, the act of exercising alone can improve your body image even if you don’t shed pounds or improve muscle tone as a result.
In fact, a University of Florida study found that people who don’t achieve workout milestones feel just as confident in their bodies as those who did. Participating in team sports or athletic groups like running clubs can also foster a sense of camaraderie and boost opportunities for social interaction that can further self-confidence and deter feelings of isolation.
Exercise is a key part of overall health, offering many physical and mental benefits for people of all ages. The next time you find your energy or mood flagging, why not change into workout gear and sweat it out? Your body and mind will thank you later.
Megan Dottermusch is the content manager for Counseling@Northwestern, the masters in counseling program offered by The Family Institute at Northwestern online. The program offers students the unique opportunity to gain clinical knowledge and acquire necessary skills to become successful clinical mental health counselors no matter where they live. As a result, Megan has become passionate about combating mental health stigmas, promoting proper nutrition and fitness, and practicing everyday mindfulness.