The Connection Between Physical Fitness and Mental Health

There are bright sides to any crisis. While the COVID pandemic has certainly brought with it many challenges, it’s also highlighted the importance of mental and emotional health.  And I’ve noticed that over the past year and a half, a global conversation has begun around using exercise as a tool for maintaining a healthy body and mind. 

Before the pandemic, the general consensus around exercise was that it was something we should do mainly to keep our bodies functional, strong, and prevent serious health issues. But the benefits of exercise go far beyond just the physical. In my own life and the lives of my clients, I’ve also witnessed just how big of an impact exercise can have on our mental wellness and well-being.

Regular exercise can help lift our moods, give us more energy, and help us think more clearly. It can give us some much-needed time to ourselves in an otherwise chaotic day. It can get us out of our heads, shift our perspective, and even help us approach the world with more optimism. 

Think about the last time you did some form of physical activity, whether it was a full-on workout, a walk, or a gentle yoga session. Did you notice a shift in your headspace before and after getting moving? 

If you’ve noticed that regular exercise helps you feel calmer, less anxious, and less stressed, you’re not alone. A growing body of scientific research has found that exercise promotes reprogramming of the brain to help us be less reactive, less anxious, and less overwhelmed by the stressors of life. 

The mental health benefits of exercise aren’t just limited to a trip to the gym, either. While research finds that a combination of exercise including HIIT, endurance exercise, resistance training, and some form of yoga, stretching, or skill-based learning is ideal for mental health, any and all movement counts. This means that heading out for a long walk, engaging in your favorite sport or activity, or doing an outdoor workout can be just as beneficial for your overall health (and in fact, research shows you’ll reap even more mental health benefits by exercising in nature). 

Let’s take a look at some specific ways exercise supports mental health and well-being: 

Exercise Helps Lower Stress Levels

Exercise helps you deal with stress and manage your emotions better. Because exercise is itself a stressor, the more you exercise, the more your brain learns to handle stress — meaning that when you come up against actual stressors, you’re able to navigate them with more ease.

Frequent exercise also stimulates changes in our brains, causing the generation of new neurons by stem cells (a process called neurogenesis) which in turn promotes neuroplasticity (our brain’s ability to continuously regenerate itself). Over time, exercise can help train your brains to be less emotionally reactive, more resilient, and less stressed overall.

Exercise Helps Improve Your Mood

Have you ever gone into a workout, walk, or yoga session in a bad mood, only to have it disappear as soon as you start moving?

If so, you’ve experienced the feel-good effects from exercise, a temporary euphoric state caused by the release of endorphins that generally involves elated, contented feelings and a general sense of well-being. This mood enhancement effect can happen after as little as five minutes of exercise, and can last for hours afterward.

Regular exercise can also increase feelings of hope, giving you perspective on what really matters and helping you to have a more optimistic outlook on life.

Exercise Helps Lower Depression

The feel-good endorphins released from exercise not only increase our mood in the short-term but can also enhance our sense of well-being over time. Taking time to exercise can also help us get our minds off of any worries, giving us a chance to get away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression and anxiety.

A growing number of studies have shown that exercise is the best treatment for people experiencing depression — even more so than many psychoactive treatments. And it doesn’t have to be much. Even just an hour a week has been shown to mitigate depression.

Three Awareness Building Tools to Try 

Here are three suggested tools to try that can help you start becoming more aware of how exercise impacts your mental health:

  1. Begin noticing your mood, energy levels, focus and concentration levels, and any other relevant information before and after any form of exercise. Do certain types of exercise affect how you feel more than others? Does the environment (indoor vs. outdoor) make a difference? What about the time of day? Start being aware of how different types of movement affects how you’re feeling.
  2. Think of three activities that bring you joy and get you moving. These can be anything from structured workouts you enjoy, to long walks in nature, to restorative yoga sessions, to playful activities like shooting baskets, playing catch, or running around the park with your kids. Write these down in your journal and try and include at least one of these activities every single day
  3. For the next week, keep a mood and exercise journal. Try different forms of movement and write down how you feel before and after.