Did you know that taking a brisk walk or hitting the gym can do more than just tone your body?
As a matter of fact, performing physical exercises is a powerful tool for managing your mood.
According to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, physical activity is significantly related to life satisfaction and happiness in young, middle-aged, and older adults (An, H.Y. et al., 2020).
It turns out that regular exercise is an effective strategy to naturally reduce the symptoms of depression or other mood-related mental health issues. And the benefits don’t stop there. Exercise has been shown to boost self-esteem, improve sleep, and enhance overall well-being.
So, let’s take a closer look at how exercise can enhance your mood and explore the connection between your body and mental health.
What’s the Connection Between Body & Mind?
Our physical health and mental health are deeply intertwined and impact one another in plenty of ways. If you’ve ever observed how your body responds when you feel stressed or down, chances are that you’ve already noticed the connection between your body and mind.
The truth is that stress or negative emotions often manifest in our physical bodies as tension, aches, and pains. These physical sensations are a representation of both our mental and emotional state and indicate that something is off-balance.
On the other hand, when we prioritize our physical health through exercise, healthy eating, and adequate rest, we may notice an improvement in our mental and emotional well-being.
The good news is that by taking care of our physical health, we automatically promote our mental and emotional well-being. The reason is that regular physical activity is an important component of mental well-being. For example, based on the latest study, increasing physical activity levels may protect against mental illness and increase well-being (Ibáñez Román et al., 2023).
Therefore, if we prioritize healthy lifestyle habits, we can reduce our risk of developing mental health disorders and improve our overall quality of life.
How Exercise Affects the Brain
Have you ever noticed that you feel better after a workout? Or that a relaxing yoga session helps you clear your mind? There’s a scientific reason behind these experiences.
Exercise has been found to have a direct impact on the brain and its chemical balance, which affects our mood and mental health. In fact, studies show that physical activity protects brain health by enhancing synaptic plasticity and supporting the integrity of the blood–brain barrier (Vecchio et al., 2018). Since physical activity promotes neuroplasticity, it can also improve cognitive function, memory, and learning, as well as protect against age-related cognitive decline.
The basic physiological mechanism that connects the body and the mind can be found in the function of neurotransmitters. When we exercise, our brain releases neurotransmitters such as endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, which are all associated with feelings of happiness, pleasure, and well-being (Lin & Kuo, 2013). On the other hand, physical activities reduce levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which contribute to depression when present in excess.
Mental Health Benefits of Exercise
As you can see, regular exercise is not only great for our physical health but also has multiple benefits for our mental well-being. Here are some of the ways exercise can positively impact our mental health:
- Promotes rise in endorphin levels
When you exercise, your brain releases endorphins, which are chemicals that can make you feel good and reduce your perception of pain. These natural “feel-good” chemicals are produced in the hypothalamus and pituitary glands and then released into the bloodstream.
Research shows that moderate-intensity exercises promote the production of endorphins in the body in about an hour (Schwarz & Kindermann, 1992). However, this effect can continue throughout the day.
- Improves quality of sleep
You probably understand that getting a good night’s sleep is crucial for our overall health and well-being. Still, many of us struggle with sleep-related issues and have trouble regulating our sleep-wake cycles. Fortunately, studies show that physical activity can regulate your body’s circadian rhythm and help you sleep better.
A 2020 study found that intense aerobic exercises performed over 8 weeks reduced fatigue and improved the quality of sleep (Ezati et al., 2022). Moreover, moderate-intensity physical activity over one week reduced insomnia symptoms and enhanced mood (Hartescu, Morgan, & Stevinson, 2015).
- Boosts your self-esteem
It’s a well-known fact that exercise can have a positive impact on our body image. As a result, people who exercise feel better about their bodies, which results in higher self-esteem and confidence.
However, research has also shown that exercise can boost self-esteem even without any changes to body composition or weight. In fact, a study published in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment found that exercise improved self-esteem, body image, and the level of perceived physical fitness without any particular changes in BMI (Zamani Sani et al., 2016). This can be attributed to a sense of accomplishment and mastery during exercise.
- It’s an effective treatment for depression & anxiety
This may sound a bit surprising, but other than therapy and medication, physical exercise can also be an effective treatment for mood and anxiety disorders. Even more – the American Psychiatric Association even recommends it as an official treatment option for depression, either alone or in combination with therapy.
The reason is that exercise actually alleviates the symptoms of depression and can improve your mood for several hours. In particular, aerobic exercises such as walking or biking can reduce the symptoms of depression among patients with major depression (Blumenthal, Smith, & Hoffman, 2012). The same applies to anxiety – according to a 2015 study, exercise can be a useful treatment for anxiety (Stonerock et al., 2015).
Most Effective Types of Exercise to Boost Your Mood
Even if you’re not a fitness enthusiast, you can still benefit from the mood-boosting effects of physical activities. While the effect of different types of exercises varies from person to person, there are a few types of exercises that have been shown to have particularly positive effects on mood.
- Walking, jogging, running, or hiking
Walking is a low-impact exercise that’s easy to do and has numerous benefits for both physical and mental health. Even a short 10-minute walk can improve mood and reduce stress levels. Studies show that people who take regular walks have better emotional health than those who don’t walk (Zhu et al., 2020). The same applies to other low-impact activities like hiking, jogging, and running, which get your heart rate up and your blood flowing.
- Aerobic exercises
Aerobic exercises, such as cycling, swimming, or dancing, are great for improving cardiovascular health, but they can also have positive effects on mood (Rao, Noronha, & Adiga, 2020). These types of exercises increase heart rate and blood flow, which stimulate the release of endorphins in the brain, leading to feelings of happiness and euphoria.
- Yoga and meditation
These mind-body practices can help decrease stress levels and increase feelings of relaxation and well-being. In fact, research shows that yoga enhances mood even more effectively than walking (Streeter et al., 2010). It can be explained due to its potential to elevate levels of GABA neurotransmitter which is associated with increased mood. Additionally, mindfulness meditation has been shown to have a positive effect on mood and mental health in individuals diagnosed with ADHD (Freire Bueno et al., 2015).
- Low-impact exercises
Finally, low-impact cardio exercises or Pilates can also be effective ways to improve mood and reduce stress levels. These exercises focus on controlled movements and breathing, which can promote relaxation and reduce tension in the body.
Take Action for Your Mental Health with Exercise & Counseling
Taking care of your mental health is essential to living a fulfilling life, and exercise can be an effective way to enhance your mood and promote well-being.
According to the CDC, 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical exercise per week is recommended for overall health. Even if it seems like a daunting task, it’s easy to break it down into manageable 30-minute sessions, five days a week.
Nevertheless, if you’re struggling with mental health issues, exercise alone may not be enough. If you’re considering therapy, our team of licensed counselors at Health for Life Counseling is here to help both in-person at our offices in Grand Rapids, MI, or Ada, MI, and online. We can help you navigate the challenges you’re facing and develop a personalized plan to take action for your mental health.
So keep in touch with our professional therapists if you’re ready to take the first step towards a healthier mind and body.