The Real Reason I Exercise

The mental health benefits of exercise are not just for athletes

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Every fitness junkie that I know shares the same secret — they exercise as much — or more — for their state of mind as for their body. Yet, for so many others, getting active sits on their list of “shoulds” rather than their list of “wants”.

What’s going on? It struck me that exercise has a marketing problem.

We are constantly reminded of why we “should” exercise — for weight loss, for heart health, for stronger bones, fewer injuries, and more. These benefits share a common feature — they accrue slowly over weeks, months, and years. To make matters worse, we are told that we must sweat it out multiple hours a week to reap them. No wonder this sounds like a chore!

Instead, why not focus on the“feel good” benefits of excercise?

These benefits are freely available, with no prior experience required, and can be reaped immediately, from a single modest exercise session.

This article shares the “feel good” benefits of exercise that keep me coming back for more, along with a few scientific tidbits and practical tips.

Four Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

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There’s a lot more to exercise than pumping up your pecs, sculpting your waist, toning your glutes, and training your heart. When we get physical, we change our environment, our psychology, our metabolic state, and even our brain chemistry. Exercise induces a symphony of neurological changes through hormones, neurotransmitters, growth factors, and other neuromodulators. Together, these changes provide a powerful recipe for enhancing mental health.

1. Boost Your Mood

Think about the last time you were physically active. Even if the session itself wasn’t a bed of roses, chances are good that the afterglow was worth it, and then some.My clever husband knows this well, and is always quick to encourage me to get my fix!

The mood benefits of exercise are well-supported by science and are eminently achievable. Even short bouts of exercise (e.g. a mere 10 minutes in this study) and low intensity workouts can help to boost a variety of mood metrics.

Beyond endorphins: Endorphins, a type of natural opioid, are just one piece of the mood puzzle. Studies that use drugs to block our natural opioid (endorphin) receptors (e.g. naloxone or naltrexone) highlight this complexity: while some report that such drugs reduce the positive mood effects of exercise (favoring a role of endorphins), others contradict this hypothesis.

2. Combat Stress & Anxiety

Physical activity has been my salvation in many stressful times. It’s gotten me through the frustrations of graduate school, the isolation of living in a foreign country, the turmoil of new parenthood, and now, pandemic life. Indeed, many of the most successful people I know cite exercise as a critical part of their mental wellbeing.

This stress-busting and anti-anxiety benefits of exercise are also supported by controlled human trials across stages of life, both in those with stress and / or anxiety related disorders, and in non-clinical populations (no mental health diagnosis).

Fighting depression in children and teens: According to this 2020 systematic review, “the small to medium but consistently positive effects in the present study place physical exercise as a promising and helpful alternative for children and adolescents with clinical and nonclinical depression.”

3. Boost Your Self-esteem & Self-worth

If you think that you have to be “good at sports” to reap the self-esteem and self-worth benefits of exercise, think again. These specific benefits of physical activity have been scientifically recognized for decades, and are not limited to high-performing youngsters (see this 2014 systematic review on mental health benefits in older adults).

Self-esteem in kids and teens: This 2015 review of twenty-five randomized controlled trial studies and 13 non-randomized controlled trial studies reported that physical activity was consistently associated with increased self-concept and self-worth in children and adolescents.

While I’ve kissed my days of athletic performance goodbye, I still find that getting physical sparks some of the same feelings of self-competence. There are few tasks on my list that are as straightforward, and satisfying as knocking out a workout. Getting active is not only eminently doable, but also offers an opportunity to watch yourself improve.

To maximize your mental boost, choose your type of activity and your success metrics carefully. Avoid situations where you’ll compare yourself to others. Measuring progress against yourself, or focusing on your ability to consistently take care of yourself by showing up.

4. Improve Your Headspace & Mental Clarity

I can still hear my brilliant PhD advisor, an avid marathoner, telling me that he does his best thinking on his epic runs. This sage advice continues to serve me well.

Like the other mental health benefits of exercise, this one is intuitive. When we exercise, we are forced to unplug from our hectic, distracted, multi-tasking lives, and are able to process our thoughts, emotions, and problems.

Indeed, the potential cognitive benefits of exercise have been extensively studied. This 2012 meta-analysis reported that a single bout of exercise offered small but consistent benefits on cognitive performance and added that “larger effects are possible for particular cognitive outcomes and when specific exercise parameters are used.”

What’s Your Exercise Prescription?

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There is no one ‘best’ prescription for reaping the greatest mental health benefits that exercise offers.

Figuring out the ‘right’ prescription starts by identifying which benefits you care most about. The answer may be different depending on whether you care most about mood, stress, self-esteem, or mental performance.

Exercise for ADHD? This 2019 meta-analysis concluded that “physical exercise has a major contribution owing to significant improvement in anxiety and depression, aggressive behaviors, thought and social problems among children suffering from ADHD.”

For help finding your winner from a pure enjoyment perspective, check out my sister article: How to Fall in Love with Fitness.

With a clear goal in mind, begin to experiment with different exercise modes, environments (indoors, outdoors), durations, intensities, and times of day. Make a note of how you feel, and give it a few tries before you move on. The nice thing about these experiments is that you don’t have to wait years, or even weeks, for the answer (and the rewards).

As you experiment, consider using these strategies to dial up the benefits:

Three Mental Health Benefit Boosters

1. Get Social. Getting active with others helps to meet our primal need for social connection, a need so profound that it’s viewed as a public health imperative. Social workouts can also be extra fun and energizing, and keep us showing up even on busy or low-motivation days.

COVID-19 wellness crisis. Social connections are more important than ever in the midst of COVID-19 related lockdowns and quarantines. There are plenty of ways to get active while staying safe, such as walking with a friend, either by phone or at a distance.

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2. Get Outside — Especially in Nature. We seem to be hard-wired to enjoy nature. This 2011 review comparing outdoor and indoor exercise validates many of my emotions:

“Compared with exercising indoors, exercising in natural environments was associated with …greater enjoyment and satisfaction with outdoor activity and declared a greater intent to repeat the activity at a later date.”

3. Add music. You probably don’t need a scientific study to convince you that exercise with music is more enjoyable, but I’ll share one anyways, just for kicks!

Closing Thoughts

The doctors and public health campaigners are right — exercise is vital for physical health, and we are missing out. Lack of physical activity is one of the leading risk factors for disease worldwide.

Yet, such physical health-centric messaging, and the “chore” mindset it fosters, may be counterproductive. Instead, let’s try talking, and thinking, more about the JOY of exercise. With time, you may find that exercise moves from your list of “shoulds” to your list of “wants”. This positive relationship with exercise can truly be a game-changer, especially in challenging times.

As you embark on your journey, it’s important to set realistic expectations and think holistically. While the mental health benefits of exercise on mood, stress, anxiety, self-esteem, and mental clarity are scientifically supported, they are rarely a silver bullet. As with most problems, a multi-pronged solution offers your best odds of success.

Meditation? Meditation is another activity with profound potential for mental health benefits. It too changes both our environment and our physiology. Learn more from the Mayo Clinic.

Disclaimer: This article is not intended as medical advice. If you need serious mental health support, please seek professional help.

Helpful Resources

About Me

I am formally trained in human genetics (PhD) and spent the first decade of my career working in cancer research, drug development, and personalized medicine. I love being active, eating veggies, playing games, and talking nerdy.

My new career chapter is dedicated to empowering others to make well-informed healthy choices that they truly enjoy.

See more of my work, including articles, videos, podcasts, and healthy recipes at: https://FueledbyScience.com

Written by

Scientist (PhD Genetics @Stanford) * Mother * Passionate about science-based healthy choices * Lifelong learner * Founder: Fueled by Science

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