A good workout doesn’t just benefit your physical fitness. Exercise also has a positive effect on mental health, providing benefits that range from improving sleep to easing anxiety.
Research has shown that exercise is beneficial for everyone’s mental health, whether or not they have a mental illness. For those with conditions such as anxiety or mood disorders, studies have shown that exercise can improve outcomes.
“Exercise can be extraordinarily beneficial both as a way to prevent a mental illness from re-occurring, and as a way to treat a mental illness if you actually have symptoms right now,” says Dr. Valerie Taylor, chief of psychiatry at Women’s College Hospital.
Exercise can help address a range of mental health symptoms, but the strongest research supports its benefits for depression and anxiety. Evidence has shown that aerobic exercise – exercise that raises the heart rate, such as brisk walking, biking, running, or swimming – can be as effective as medication in treating mild to moderate depression, Dr. Taylor explains.
“Exercise actually increases serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that’s often deficient in people who have depression or anxiety,” she says. “So it does exactly the same thing a medication does: it increases serotonin levels.”
People who have symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) struggle with mood symptoms related to the lack of sunlight in the fall and winter months. Combining exercise with natural light can be helpful.
“If you can force yourself to do some exercise that’s outside – walking, running, doing anything where you have sun exposure – that can be really effective for helping to control seasonal affective disorder,” Dr. Taylor says.
Challenges and support
The trouble with recommending exercise for people with depression is that the symptoms of the condition can make it very difficult to act on that advice.
“Some of the symptoms of depression are that you don’t have a lot of energy, and motivation can become a challenge. This seems counterintuitive to starting an exercise program,” Dr. Taylor says. That’s why self-care is important for people with a mental health diagnosis, even when there are no active symptoms. “If you can make exercise part of your life when you are feeling well, this can be a tool to help keep you well and to help minimize symptoms of depression.”
For those with current symptoms, a good place to start is to make an appointment with a healthcare professional.
“If you have active, significant depression, it’s going to be very hard to engage in anything, so make sure that you speak to a healthcare provider to ensure that those symptoms are being treated properly,” Dr. Taylor says. “If you need a medication, taking that medication may make it easier for you to engage in other activities like exercise that can help you get well faster and perhaps stop needing the medication.”
Including exercise in a mental health regimen is also an area where family and friends can offer significant support. Dr. Taylor notes that loved ones often asked what they can do to help someone who has a mental illness.
“This is an area where support from friends and family can really be essential,” she says. “They can help organize group activities, or activities with a buddy, that can really motivate you, get you out, get you active. So if there is something that you can do with friends, that can be really motivating.”
It can also help address the isolation experienced by many people with mental illnesses.
“Exercise that’s part of a group activity – a running program, yoga with friends, anything that’s an organized social activity – can really help minimize some of those symptoms and make a person feel less isolated and alone,” Dr. Taylor says.
Making mental health a priority
Maintaining good mental health is important for everyone, even if they don’t have a mental health condition. Some of the benefits of exercise include better sleep, improved memory and higher energy levels, which all influence how people feel day to day.
“I think exercise should be part of a wellness program for all of us. Certainly it’s a great stress management tool, it can help keep anxiety under control, and it really forces us to think about ourselves sometimes,” Dr. Taylor says. “Often – especially as women – we prioritize everyone else above ourselves. So if you make this ‘me time’ something that you do to prioritize your own health, that can only be good. If you make it a family activity or something you do with friends, all the better because then you are getting some companionship along with releasing endorphins and increasing serotonin.”
Although the research evidence supports doing exercise that gets your heart rate up and increases your breathing rate for mental health benefits, Dr. Taylor notes that there’s really no such thing as bad exercise as long as it’s done in moderation.
“As an overall effective strategy for managing physical health, stress management, and treating your mental health, we can’t overemphasize the benefits of exercise,” she says.