Benefits of Fitness and Mental Health
Physical fitness helps keep weight in check and can help you enjoy many years of healthy living. A sculpted body and strong bones are a great motivation for anyone to begin a fitness routine. But the benefits of a healthy lifestyle don’t end there.
Exercise and fitness have a positive impact on mental health. Taking care of your physical body helps you deal with stress, reduces depression and even eases anxiety, and those who have regular physical activity gain more self-confidence and discipline. Even better, benefits often spill over to positively impact all areas of the fitness enthusiast’s life.
Engaging in physical exercise increases what some call mental fitness, which is an overall impact on emotional health, mental health and even cognitive skills. This seems odd because in our culture, mind, and body seem to be two separate human aspects that are unrelated. But more studies are showing that not only does exercise and fitness have an impact on mental health, but is necessary for it.
Exercise Increases Brain Function
Regular exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which brings increased oxygen and more nutrients for healthy brain function. But another interesting benefit is that regular exercise increases brain volume through a process called neurogenesis; which is the production of neurons in the brain. This effect protects you from dementia and possibly even Alzheimer’s disease.
Exercise also promotes a process known as brain plasticity or neuroplasticity, which is the ability to increase neuron pathways throughout your brain. (1) This leads to increased learning skills and improved memory while it slows the aging process. In other words, exercise makes you smarter for longer! And lastly, the improved brain function helps regulate emotions, so you feel healthier and happier.
Exercise Treats Depression
Many people know that exercise improves your mood, but new research shows that 15 minutes of running or 60 minutes of walking significantly reduces the risk of major depression. Even more exciting is that other research shows that exercise is an effective treatment for major depressive disorder or MDD. Even modest levels of exercise had an impact, which seemed to be why over 70% of patients were able to keep up their exercise routine. (2)
One reason this works may be because exercise helps your brain release endorphins, those feel-good chemicals necessary for a good mood. Along with the physical effect, regular exercise promotes well-being as it takes the mind off of problems while you focus on your health. It helps people learn to cope with problems, stress, and worry in a healthy manner and sometimes offers social interaction among groups of people with similar interests. Self-confidence is also a benefit that serves as a mental booster, especially when you realize you can reach fitness goals and challenges.
Exercise Reduces Stress
Stress is not just mental, it is physical. When stressed, our bodies release chemicals that can be harmful if this happens on a regular basis. In fact, chronic stress creates chronic release of these chemicals that can lead to heartburn, diarrhea, insomnia, and worse. Stress can cause tightened muscles that lead to chronic back, shoulder and neck pain. But you can turn this all around.
Exercise helps break the cycle of stress. It provides an outlet for the excess energy as you work out your muscles to help relieve tension. As previously mentioned, brain function increases along with self-confidence, and both of these can lead to an increased capacity to problem solve. And helping your body produce endorphins can counteract the stress hormones that cause damage. Lastly, exercise can reduce internal inflammation, which is linked to stress and depression.
Exercise Improves Sleep
We all have a built-in timer called the Circadian Rhythm, which regulates many body functions, including sleep. A healthy sleep cycle is important for many reasons including healthy moods and weight maintenance. Too much caffeine, poor diet, medications, overworking and stress can all interfere with the sleep cycle, resulting in ongoing fatigue, among other things.
Fortunately, exercise improves sleep. It helps regulate the Circadian Rhythm and promotes “slow-wave” sleep, which is the deep, restorative stage of sleep that is most important for overall well-being. Some research shows that increased body temperature along with temperature reduction afterward is the reason for better sleep, but some exercise specialists say it’s the increased activity that helps promote nighttime sleep.
How Much Exercise?
The general guidelines on exercising set by the Department of Health and Human Services is at least 160 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise each week. In addition, try to fit in two full-body resistance training workouts. This includes exercises that target each major muscle group in each session.
Moderate and vigorous aerobic activity can include walking, jogging, running, or swimming. Be sure to find your ideal heart rate for your size and age, and use that as your goal. If you are new to exercise, begin slowly and you will increase quickly while still reaping the benefits. Always use good form and try to track your progress; this will help you gain self-confidence as you see your performance increase.
Strength training can include activities like free weight training, weight machines, or circuit training with strength exercises. Including exercises like rock climbing or kickboxing can make your strength training days more interesting. If you’re a beginner, seek the help of a trainer or class, and don’t overdo it. This will help you avoid injury and stay motivated.
To reap the mental health benefits of exercise and fitness discussed above, don’t fret about how much time you spend, because some exercise is always better than none. If you can only do 10 to 15 minutes three times a week, then begin with that. Most people who begin like this naturally increase the amount of exercise over the first few weeks as they begin to feel better, both physically and mentally. Using a fitness tracker or app likeYes.Fit can help keep you motivated as you see your progress. Remember that your fitness routine is your time, so put on some music, have fun, and enjoy your mental fitness!
1 Gourgouvelis J, Yielder P, Murphy B. Exercise Promotes Neuroplasticity in Both Healthy and Depressed Brains: An fMRI Pilot Study. Neural Plast. 2017;2017:8305287. doi:10.1155/2017/8305287
2 Blumenthal JA, Smith PJ, Hoffman BM. Is Exercise a Viable Treatment for Depression?. ACSMs Health Fit J. 2012;16(4):14–21. doi:10.1249/01.FIT.0000416000.09526.eb