The mental benefits of exercise include less stress, anxiety and depression and better intelligence, memory and focus. Daily exercise is an important habit for lifetime mental health.
What you’ll learn about the mental benefits of exercise in this article:
- 7 of the most important ways that exercise boosts brain health, thus improving mental health
- How exercise relieves depression better than antidepressants
- The best exercises for mental health: Best types and how-to advice
Our bodies are meant to move.
So it’s not surprising that a sedentary lifestyle makes us less healthy not only physically, but mentally as well.
Currently, one in five Americans experiences a mental, behavioral or emotional disorder in a given year. (1)
According to the World Health Organization, one in four persons worldwide will have a mental or neurological disorder sometime during their lives. (2)
And just as an absence of bodily disease is not the same thing as physical health, the absence of a mental disorder is not the same as mental health.
Mental health has been defined as a state of mental well-being and internal equilibrium in which you can experience feelings of happiness, live in relative harmony within your environment, cope with the stresses of life, have healthy relationships, and work productively. (3, 4, 5)
A healthy brain is the first line of defense against mental health disruptors of all kinds — stress, anxiety, depression, cravings and addictions, low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, and all those other things that keep you from being your best, happiest self.
There’s an abundance of evidence that exercise might be the most important action you can take to promote all-around mental health.
No matter where you currently fall on the mental health continuum, if you aren’t exercising regularly, you almost certainly aren’t as happy and mentally fit as you could be.
The Proven Mental Benefits of Exercise
Physical exercise can make you smarter.
One huge study on over 1 million young, healthy men found that it actually raised IQ. (9)
Exercise makes you more effective and productive by improving creativity, mental flexibility, concentration, ability to manage time, decision making, and executive functions. (10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16)
Executive functions encompass a wide range of mental abilities including the ability to switch tasks efficiently, ignore distractions, and make plans.
These tiny powerhouses are found in every cell of your brain and body.
Exercise improves self-control to overcome bad habits.
A review of 24 studies found that exercise provides an immediate boost to self-control. (32)
Exercise, of course, builds muscle and can help you maintain a healthy weight, but it particularly attacks hidden visceral fat which manifests as unattractive belly fat.
It’s been repeatedly shown that exercise relieves symptoms of a wide range of mental health disorders including ADHD, anxiety disorders, depression, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. (41, 42, 43)
Lastly, exercise can help you live longer and pack more life into those years. (44)
Exercise Relieves Depression Better Than Antidepressants
If you have depression or take a prescription antidepressant, this is information you’ll want to know.
One group took Zoloft, a second group exercised 30 minutes four times a week, and a third group did both.
In the short term, all three groups had substantial, nearly equal improvements in depression.
But there was a big difference in the long term.
Six months later, only 62% of the drug-only group and 69% percent of the drug-and-exercise group had stayed depression-free, while an impressive 92% of those in the exercise-only group had no relapse. (47)
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Dr. John Ratey, Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, has extensively studied physical exercise and its impact on the brain.
He states in his TEDx Talk that exercising is like taking “a little bit of Ritalin and a little bit of Prozac” to focus your mind and relieve depression.
He’s found that when normally happy people who exercise are forced to stop, they become depressed and unable to pay attention or make plans.
So now that you know all of the remarkable mental benefits of exercise, let’s take a look at how exercise performs this magic!
1. Exercise Floods the Brain with Oxygen and Nutrients
Your brain needs a constant supply of oxygen and glucose.
But since it can’t store either, it relies on a steady supply from your bloodstream.
Exercise increases circulation, thus delivering more oxygen, glucose and nutrients to your brain.
Increased circulation assists in removing debris, like toxins and metabolic waste products, that builds up in your brain.
The average human brain has an amazing 400 miles of blood vessels.
But this number gradually decreases with age. (48)
Exercise can offset brain aging by building new capillaries.
2. Exercise Increases Your Resilience to Stress
Chronic stress is a disaster for your brain.
But exercise can overcome the impact of chronic stress on your brain.
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It decreases cortisol release and improves your reaction to stress. (60)
Exercise keeps you from dwelling on negative thoughts by altering blood flow to those areas in the brain that trigger unwanted, stressful thoughts. (66)
One fascinating finding is that exercise reduces stress and anxiety even if you are forced to exercise and don’t really want to do it! (67)
Amazingly, the exercise you do today can protect you from anxiety and depression for up to five years, even if you stop exercising. (68)
But with all of these impressive benefits, why would you want to stop?
3. Exercise Increases the Brain Chemicals of Happiness
Brain cells communicate with each other via chemical messengers called neurotransmitters.
There are over 100 known neurotransmitters that regulate mood, energy, libido, cravings, addictions and sleep. (69)
The major feel-good brain chemicals — serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and endorphins — are essential for maintaining a positive mood.
And a healthier level of all of them can be achieved with physical exercise.
Serotonin plays a large role in mood regulation.
Low serotonin is widely believed to be responsible for depression.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac and Zoloft relieve symptoms of depression by increasing brain levels of serotonin.
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Exercise has been found to work better for depression than the SSRI drug Zoloft, and with no side effects. (72)
Exercise also normalizes dopamine levels so they stay in the sweet zone and don’t get too low or too high. (73)
Dr. John Ratey found that exercise raises baseline levels of dopamine by promoting the growth of new brain cell receptors.
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He states, “A lot of things contribute to us feeling better when we exercise. Endorphins are one of them, but so are norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor.” (74)
Exercise boosts the levels of your body’s natural painkillers — endorphins –which are mainly responsible for a euphoric feeling popularly known as “runner’s high.” (75)
But you don’t have to run for hours to experience the benefits of endorphins.
According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, 30 minutes of biking, hiking, cycling, weightlifting, and even doing chores around the house will increase endorphins. (76)
4. Exercise Results in a Bigger, Better-Connected Brain
Just as exercise builds a healthier heart and stronger muscles, it also builds a bigger and sharper brain.
Exercise increases brain volume by raising levels of brain chemicals that promote new brain cell formation and new neural connections. (80)
Exercise especially increases the number of brain cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. (81)
Seniors who regularly walked were able to increase hippocampus volume by 2% within a year. (82)
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Exercise turns on the gene that sends a signal to create more brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
BDNF is a protein that keeps existing brain cells healthy and stimulates new brain cell formation.
Increasing BDNF levels via exercise can make your brain more resistant to damage from oxidative stress, injury and disease. (83)
Amazingly, when researchers sprinkled BDNF onto neurons in the lab, they spontaneously sprouted new branches.
This led Dr. Ratey to compare BDNF to “Miracle-Gro for the brain.”
He says that BDNF keeps brain cells young and perky to prevent cognitive decline.
Maintaining higher BDNF levels is thought to help prevent depression, dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease since they are all linked to a low BDNF level.
Additionally, low BDNF has been linked to schizophrenia. (85)
5. Exercise Helps You Sleep
Dozens of studies confirm that physical exercise can have a profound effect on how well you sleep. (86)
The National Sleep Foundation reports that getting 150 minutes of exercise a week improves sleep quality by 65%. (87)
It’s hard to be your best when lack of sleep leaves you feeling grumpy, impatient, lethargic and foggy-headed.
Gretchen Rubin, author of the international bestseller The Happiness Project, is frequently asked how to be happier.
She writes on her blog that she always responds, “The first thing to do is to make sure you’re getting plenty of sleep and some exercise.” (88)
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This is not a surprising answer when you realize how important sleep is for your brain.
And anyone dealing with a mental health issue has an extra reason to get more sleep.
People with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are 5 times more likely than average to experience chronic insomnia.
By simply getting better sleep, many people experience substantial relief from their symptoms. (93)
6. Physical Exercise Increases Brain Plasticity
Brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity, is your brain’s ability to keep growing and changing throughout your lifetime.
Until fairly recently it was believed that your brain was static and that you were born with a set number of brain cells and level of intelligence. (94)
But scientists now know this is not true.
Brain plasticity is associated with improved intelligence, memory, mood and happiness, along with increased brain volume that can help prevent degenerative brain diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s. (95)
There are several known ways to increase brain plasticity and exercise is one of the best.
Positive changes in the brain have been observed 15 minutes after exercising, and even as little as one 30-minute exercise session will improve brain plasticity. (96)
7. Exercise Protects Against Brain Aging
Physical exercise can protect your brain against aging, age-related cognitive decline, and degenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and dementia. (97)
One way it does this is by protecting your telomeres.
Telomeres are protective end caps on your chromosomes, similar to the plastic tips on shoelaces.
Telomere length is thought to be the best indicator of biological aging — even better than medical diagnostic tools. (98)
Shortened telomeres lead to atrophy of brain cells, while longer telomeres lead to the production of new brain cells. (99)
The Best Exercises for Mental Health
It’s crystal clear that exercise is one of the best things you can do for your mental health.
But what kind of exercise gives the most mental health benefits? And how much should you do?
Dr. Ratey believes that sprint bursts will have you feeling mentally brighter for the rest of the day. (100)
Here’s the pattern he recommends:
- Run, bike or swim as fast as you can for 30 to 40 seconds.
- Reduce your speed to a gentle pace for the next five minutes.
- Sprint again.
- Repeat four times for a total of five sprints.
Walking is generally considered one of the best all-around exercises.
It’s no coincidence that people often take a walk to think better or clear their mind. (101)
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Traditional no-impact meditative movement exercises like yoga, tai chi and qi gong provide significant mind-body benefits.
Yoga can reduce stress and improve concentration and mood. (102)
Tai chi and qi gong give your brain a surprisingly good workout.
The American Heart Association and The American College of Sports Medicine recommend healthy adults do one of the following activities: (105)
- Moderate level of walking, swimming, running or biking for 30 minutes, five days a week OR
- Intense level of walking, swimming, running or biking for 20 minutes, three days a week.
They also recommend doing some strength training two days per week.
You can get more of a mental boost from your workout by exercising outdoors.
Compared to indoor exercise, it increases vitality, enthusiasm, pleasure and self-esteem while lowering tension, depression and fatigue. (106)
Spending time in nature improves memory recall and attention span. (107)
That may be one of the reasons gardening is one of the best overall exercises for both the body and the brain. (108)
Gardeners have a significantly lower risk of dementia than non-gardeners. (109)
Also, a new study has found that exercising with others offers significant benefits over exercising alone. (110)
Working out with others was shown to improve mental health (by 13%), physical health (by 25%), and emotional health (by 26%), while reducing stress by 26%.
As you can see, there is no single right way to exercise.
Since your brain thrives on variety, Dr. Ratey recommends varying your exercise routine for the most benefit. (111)
If you dread exercise, take heart — it’s better than you think.
When asked to predict how much they will enjoy their workout, most people found that they actually liked exercising more than they expected! (112)
Mental Benefits of Exercise: The Bottom Line
Developing the habit of daily exercise is one of the best things you can do to experience good mental health for a lifetime.
Exercise nourishes, protects and strengthens your brain so you’ll feel happier, be more resilient to stress, and have better memory and focus.
It enhances mental functions, promotes neurotransmitter balance, and protects your brain from the effects of aging.
And fortunately, you don’t have to exercise strenuously to reap the mental health benefits.
Pick exercises that you enjoy and stick with them.
Because the best exercises are the ones you’ll actually do.