What are the benefits of exercise for mental health?
These days there’s little doubt physical activity has a positive effect on mental health. In fact, plenty of research has been published that shows people who exercise and stay active have better mental wellbeing and less mental illness than others who don’t exercise at all or very often.
A 2018 large-scale study, for instance, suggests people who exercise have fewer days of poor mental health than others who don’t exercise (i). It also found that you don’t have to work out for hours every day to reap any rewards, with the biggest benefits seen in people who work out for just 45 minutes three to five times a week.
This particular study included a range of different types of physical activities from team sports, cycling and going to the gym to housework, childcare and mowing the lawn. On average, the 1.2 million participants had 3.4 days of poor mental health – including stress, depression and emotional problems – every month. But those who exercised had one and a half extra days of good mental health than the non-exercisers, with those taking part in team sports, cycling, aerobics and gym activities enjoying more benefits than others (though all types of exercise were found to improve mental health, even doing housework improved time spent in good mental health by about half a day a month).
Exercise and the brain
Exercise benefits your brain by boosting its oxygen levels. Exercise increases oxygen levels in the blood, which means it helps supply more oxygen to the brain. And that, say researchers, could help with cognitive health (iv), including reducing your risk of cognitive decline (v).
According to the NHS exercise also helps boost levels of brain chemicals called serotonin and dopamine in the brain, which can lift your mood (ii). These chemicals are called neurotransmitters, and they’re important because they carry chemical signals from one nerve or brain cell to the next.
Probably the best known neurotransmitters are called endorphins. In fact, endorphins are usually the first thing experts talk about when they’re discussing exercise and wellbeing, as it’s generally accepted that endorphins are released in your body when you’re physically active.
What do endorphins do?
Releasing lots of endorphins is a good thing because when your body produces these particular neurotransmitters they trigger positive and even euphoric feelings – when it comes to exercise, for instance, you may have heard people refer to those feelings as a ‘runner’s high’. Another thing endorphins do is interact with parts of the brain that reduce your perception of pain. They also have a sedating effect, which can increase feelings of wellbeing too.
Endorphins are also thought to work alongside other neurotransmitters called endocannabinoids, especially when you work out. In fact, some researchers believe it’s the endocannabinoids that produce the ‘runner’s high’ sensation, not just endorphins on their own (iii).
How does exercise improve mental wellbeing?
There are a number of ways in which exercising regularly may improve your mental and emotional wellbeing:
Exercise and stress
Defined as the body’s response to pressure caused by different situations or life events (vi), stress is something we all experience – though everyone tends to cope with it differently and with varying degrees of success. According to the Mental Health Foundation, physical exercise can be very effective in relieving stress, with studies suggesting highly active people tend to have lower stress rates than those who are less active (vii). There’s also evidence that exercise may relieve stress by reducing levels of stress hormones in the body (viii).
Boosts your mood
There are numerous studies that have investigated the impact of exercise on people’s mood, and overall, the type of exercise found to work best for mood improvement is low-intensity aerobic exercise for 30 - 35 minutes, three to five days a week (swimming, yoga, Pilates and cycling on flat ground are all examples of low-intensity activities). Researchers have also found exercise works best for improving mood when you already feel a bit low (vii).
Improves your self-confidence
Experts have also spent a lot of time looking into the link between exercise and self-confidence, with several studies finding that exercising regularly could help boost your body image (ix). Researchers have found that physical activity can boost self-esteem and self-worth in men and women of all ages too (vii).
Helps you sleep better
Getting a good night’s sleep is often linked with having better mental health, and many studies have shown that those who exercise regularly sleep more soundly and feel more alert during the daytime compared with non-exercisers (x). However try not to exercise too close to bedtime, as it takes a while for your body to wind down again.
For more tips on improving your sleep, read our guide to sleep and insomnia.
Meanwhile, some of the specific mental health conditions exercise has an impact on include the following:
Exercise and depression
Living with depression can make you feel lethargic and not exactly in the mood for exercise. But if you can muster the energy for it, staying active can help boost your mood if you have mild to moderate depression (xi). In fact, exercise is often prescribed by GPs as one of the ways of treating depression – if you’re affected, ask your doctor to tell you more about it and whether or not exercise on prescription could help you.
Exercise and anxiety
According to the Mental Health Foundation, physical activity can reduce anxiety in people with mild symptoms and may also be helpful for treating clinical anxiety (vii).
Exercise and Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
This is a common form of anxiety disorder that involves having uncontrollable obsessive thoughts and actions. Having OCD can make you feel very anxious and distressed, but the good news is researchers believe staying physically active can help reduce OCD symptoms (xii).
Exercise and bipolar disorder
In the past this was called manic depression but nowadays we refer to it as bipolar disorder or bipolar affective disorder. It causes extreme swings from depression to feelings of elation and is thought to be the mental health condition with the highest risk for suicide attempts (xiii). Exercise, however, has been shown to help manage bipolar symptoms, helping those affected to experience a higher level of wellbeing (xiv).
Exercise and Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
A mental health and behavioural problem that causes symptoms such as impulsive behaviours, hyperactivity and difficulties with paying attention, ADHD is usually thought of as a problem that affects children – though adults can be affected by it too. We’re not completely sure exactly what causes ADHD, but there’s a good chance neurotransmitter balance plays a part – some researchers, for instance, believe that low dopamine levels could be to blame (xv). Scientists believe exercise may be a useful treatment for ADHD (xvi), with studies also suggesting physical activity may help regulate dopamine levels in the brain (xvii).
How much exercise is needed for mental health?
How much time you should spend being physically active depends on whether you take part in moderate-intensity activities (anything that makes you breathe slightly faster and your heart beat a bit faster) or vigorous-intensity activities (this should make you breathe very hard and make your heart beat quickly). Going for a brisk walk, for instance, is an example of moderate-intensity activity, while running, skipping and cycling uphill are examples of vigorous-intensity activities.
For adults the current recommendation is for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity a week. In either case the minutes can be spread across the week, plus you can mix and match moderate and vigorous as you see fit. If, however, you’re not used to being active, start slowly by doing just 10 minutes a day.
You should also do some strengthening activities that work all your major muscle groups on at least two days of the week (this could include anything from lifting weights to carrying heavy shopping bags or digging the garden). In addition to strengthening activities on at least two days of the week, adults aged 65 and older should add activities that improve their balance and flexibility.
Meanwhile we should all aim to reduce the general amount of time we spend sitting or lying down and break up long periods of inactivity with some form of movement or another. Adults over 65 should try to be physically active every day too, even if it’s just light activity (for instance, getting up to make a cup of tea, moving around the house, making the bed and other household chores).
Best exercises for mental health
There are numerous types of activities you could try, from exercise that’s specifically designed to improve your health and fitness to activities you do for fun or structured and competitive sports. Just some of the activities you could try include:
Running or jogging
Yoga and Pilates
Bodyweight resistance exercises
Whatever exercise you do will be beneficial, not just for your mental health but your physical health too – the key is to find something you enjoy doing and are therefore more likely to stick at.
How to get motivated to workout
If you’re thinking about getting more active, here are a few extra tips that may help:
Try to have a specific exercise goal in mind then build up to it gradually – this can be particularly useful if you haven’t been very active lately.
When thinking of your exercise goal, make sure it’s realistic and achievable. For instance, try to choose activities that you can plan around your normal day-to-day life and commitments.
Don’t give up if you’re not keen on the first activity you’ve chosen – there are loads more you can try, so just keep going until you find something you enjoy.
Don’t force it if you’re really not in the mood to be active. Try to schedule your activities when you’re most likely to have the energy and motivation, then rest when you need to. This is particularly important if you’re on any kind of medication or have a medical condition that affects your mood and energy.
If you’re anxious about the way your body looks when you’re exercising, look for an activity that could help you feel more confident – for instance, a women-only or men-only swimming session. Exercising with a friend could also give you moral support if you have body image issues.
Try using a pedometer or activity tracker to check how well you’re doing – these types of devices can really help with your motivation.
Also don’t forget to speak to your doctor before you embark on any new type of exercise if you’re taking medication for an existing health problem or if you haven’t been very active lately.
Supplements for mental health
Eating a healthy, balanced diet can help give you the energy you need to exercise as well as keep your mind and body in good working order. At the same time, you may want to consider taking a nutritional or herbal supplement if your mental health needs extra support:
A well-known herb that has a history of traditional use for the temporary relief of mild anxiety and sleep problems, Valerian may help make you feel calmer whenever you encounter stressful situations (xviii). The US-based National Institutes of Health also notes that valerian has sedative properties (xix).
Often recommended by nutritional therapists as a treatment for depression and low mood, 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is an amino acid that’s converted in the brain to the neurotransmitter serotonin. Studies suggest 5-HTP may be as effective as conventional antidepressants (xx), while other researchers have found 5-HTP may help with anxiety disorders (xxi).
Found almost exclusively in green, black, oolong and pekoe tea, theanine, is a non-protein amino acid that’s also available in nutritional supplements. Many natural practitioners recommend theanine as it’s thought to help your brain produce alpha waves, which make you feel more calm. It also has the advantage that, unlike some conventional medicines that help you relax, theanine doesn’t make you feel sleepy at the same time. Indeed, studies suggest theanine supplements can calm you down but still keep you feeling awake and alert (xxii).
Researchers have also found theanine may help you feel calm when faced with a stressful situation by reducing your heart rate (xxiii).
Herbal medicine practitioners often recommend tea made using the herb lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) to help with relaxation, and there is some evidence it could help reduce anxiety levels (xxiv). Lemon balm is also available in supplement form.
St John’s wort
A well-known herb used for the relief of slightly low mood and mild anxiety, based on traditional use only, St John's wort has been the subject of a number of research studies. One review of such studies suggests the herb may be significantly more effective than placebo (dummy pill) and at least as effective and better tolerated than standard antidepressant medicines (xxv). Other researchers suggest St John’s wort may be an option for people who can’t tolerate conventional antidepressants (xxvi).
This Ayurvedic herb is often used to help with stress. Studies, for instance, suggest it may help reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol (xxvii), with researchers also finding ashwagandha is a safe and effective supplement to take alongside conventional antidepressants in people with generalised anxiety disorder symptoms (xxviii).
If your mental health is below par, it can make life difficult. But the good news is there’s plenty of evidence to show staying active can be helpful for your mental wellbeing, whether you’re having problems already or you’re simply trying to keep yourself mentally healthy. And while we may not feel like exercising sometimes, it’s good to know that when we do take part in physical activities, it can really help us feel emotionally better, faster. If you need more advice and information about mental health issues, take a look around our mental health pages – or simply browse through our pharmacy health library for details of a wide range of health conditions.
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Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.
Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.