Exercise Your Way to Better Mental Health

As you step into the gym, chances are you are thinking about improving heart health, building muscle, or achieving the body of your dreams. But did you know that jaunt on the stepmaster could benefit your brain too? For over a decade, scientists have been studying the effects of exercise on the brain. Studies show that regardless of age or fitness levels, exercise can yield some major mental benefits. According to Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and author, John Ratey, "Exercise is the single best thing you can do for your brain in terms of mood, memory, and learning". Need more convincing? Read on below to find out how exercise can do more than just torch calories!

1) Reduce stress
Combat everyday stressors by taking a walk or heading to the gym. According to studies, as little as 30 minutes of aerobic exercise can drastically decrease stress levels by increasing the brain's feel-good chemicals, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Regular physical activity may even be working on a cellular level to reverse the effects of stress on the body's natural aging process. 


2) Boosts the good stuff
While running laps may not exactly make you want to jump for joy, the effects of it may be worth the effort. Regular exercise causes the release of endorphins, which create the feeling of happiness and euphoria. Studies have shown that burning approximately 350 calories 3 times a week can reduce symptoms of depression as effectively as anti-depressants. 

What do 350 calories look like?

  • 3 continuous, 10-minute sets of: 10 kettlebell swings, 10 kettlebell sumo deadlifts, 3 minutes of rest, repeat 
  • 36 minutes of jumping rope
  • 52 minutes of a high-intensity aerobics class 
  • 1.5-hour walk at 3.5 mph

3) Prevents cognitive decline
Even though the heart may be forever young, the brain does go through some less than pleasant changes as we age. As the years progress, the natural aging progress and degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's begin to destroy brain cells, causing our thinking to become hazy. Although Alzheimer's disease is currently incurable, studies have shown that regular exercise, especially between the ages of 25-35, have a neuroprotective effect on the hippocampus, the area of the brain that is responsible for memory and special navigation, and which is one of the first parts of the brain to succumb to Alzheimer's related damage. 

4) Anxiety eliminator!
While sipping on a glass of wine may seem like a nice way to relax, studies have shown that a dose of exercise is what people suffering from anxiety disorders may need. The brain chemicals that are released during and after exercise (serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine) are effective in decreasing levels of anxiety and tension.

5) Brain power!
Going to a salsa dance class does more than just work the hips. Complicated activities, such as playing tennis or going to a dance class, causes an increase in brain growth factors, which help produce new brain cells and establish connections between existing brain cells to help us learn. Not only do you get to learn an awesome new skill, but you also gain the benefits of increased attention and concentration skills. Win-win-win!

6) Builds self-esteem and improves body images
"Love yourself the way you want someone to love you"
One of the best ways to boost your self-love is by getting outdoors and exercising. Research shows that by seeing improvements in fitness, such as running a longer distance without getting winded or beating your PR on the bench press, can improve self-esteem and body image. The added benefits of exercising in nature is an increase of vitamin D, an important vitamin in preventing Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. 


If exercising on your own doesn't feel particularly inspiring, try any of all of these ideas:

  • Join a fitness class at your local gym or community center
  • Find a workout buddy who can hold you accountable
  • Track your progress in a fitness diary, fitness tracker app, or the Apple watch
  • Hire a personal trainer 

Exercise is one of the best things that you can do for yourself, both mentally and physically. By incorporating small chunks of physical activity, you can have a healthier heart, happier mood, and (bonus) a rocking bod!