Science Says: Exercise Benefits Mood and Mental Health
In studies, exercise, as a subcategory of physical activity, is defined as planned, structured and repetitive bodily movements done to improve or maintain one or more components of physical fitness (Howley 2001).
Experts offer multiple reasons why exercise positively impacts mental health; most agree it’s likely a combination of indirect and direct factors. Better circulation and reduced inflammation, boosts in psychological outlook, exposure to positive environmental factors, and perceptual and behavioral shifts are all “side effects” of exercise that enhance mental health.
According to the science, exercise may improve mental health in the following ways:
By enhancing physiological benefits. Physical activity benefits overall brain health by reducing peripheral risk factors for poor mental health—such as inflammation, diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease—and by increasing blood flow and associated delivery of nutrients and energy,” says Angela Clow, PhD, professor in the department of psychology at the University of Westminster, London, and coeditor of Physical Activity and Mental Health. Depression and other mental ailments are associated with low physical activity; being more physically active reduces mental illness risks (Cooney et al. 2013).
By raising tolerance for emotional stress. Since exercise is stressful, regular exercise increases a person’s resilience toward other forms of physical and emotional stress. Having more physical and emotional strength—from consistent fitness training—seems to help people adapt better when tough situations occur (Otto & Smits 2011).
By increasing familiarity with physical stress. For some anxiety sufferers, an elevated heart rate, profuse sweating, chills and other stress symptoms that can occur during an anxiety attack are, by themselves, upsetting. By exercising regularly, people can learn to control their experience of physiological stress—like an elevated heart rate or sweating—and these symptoms can become less frightening.
By boosting self-efficacy. People who master a new skill improve self-efficacy which subsequently leads to higher self-esteem. Learning how to exercise is an example of a skill that increases self-efficacy. High self-efficacy predicts well-being, while low self-esteem is associated with mental illness (Clow & Edmunds 2014).
By fostering social contact. Social interaction improves mood. Exercise frequently occurs together with others or with friend and family encouragement. This support boosts mood (Cooney et al. 2013).
By diverting negative thinking. People with depression or anxiety often get stuck in negative thought cycles. Exercise, especially when mindful, may be a diversion from self-rumination, focusing thoughts away from negative inner concerns toward engagement with the present and with pleasurable experiences (Otto & Smits 2011).
By encouraging engagement instead of avoidance. Focusing on exercise pursuits provides value. Creating a structured program directs focus on the value of activity, rather than withdrawal, and teaches persistence. This lesson in engagement, in spite of escape urges, can help people with anxiety to overcome avoidance in other life areas.