We all know that exercise is good for us. “Get 30 minutes of physical activity per day,” your doctor reminds you at every visit. Regular exercise keeps your heart healthy, your weight in check and reduces the risk of a number of serious diseases.
It’s not just your physical health that benefits from regular workouts, though. Taking the time to get your sweat on every day has some major benefits to your mental health as well. And we’re not just talking about the fact that exercise releases endorphins, also known as “happy hormones” that give your mood a boost during and after your workout. No, exercise can do a lot more for your mental well-being than help you get over a bad mood.
Exercise Helps Keep Addictions in Check
Most addictions are linked to the brain chemical dopamine, which creates the pleasurable feelings that reward activities, such as eating, shopping, sex, drugs or alcohol. The problem is that some people become addicted to the dopamine; in other words, it’s not necessarily a drug itself that you’re addicted to, but the happy feelings associated with using that drug that create addiction.
So where does exercise fit? According to a study published in the journal Behavior Modification, exercise can help addicts redirect their cravings. A short workout, which creates the same pleasurable feelings, can effectively distract someone from wanting to use. It also helps to regulate sleep cycles; instead of using drugs or alcohol to fall asleep, an addict will naturally get rest.
Exercise Improves Self-Esteem
Getting regular exercise can help you look and feel great — after all, who doesn’t want to be fit, toned and able to wear skinny jeans without fear? Exercise’s self-esteem benefits go well beyond dropping extra pounds and looking incredible in a swimsuit. The sense of accomplishment that comes with achieving a goal, or pushing yourself to your limits, and then overcoming them, can give your self-confidence a serious boost.
Exercise Can Reduce Anxiety
Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health conditions in the U.S., effecting more than 40 million adults. But research indicates that regular workouts can help relieve anxiety. Not only does a good workout help you release some of your nervous energy, the endorphins from exercise can help reduce feelings of anxiety and depression.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, people who exercise regularly are 25 percent less likely to develop anxiety or depression than those who are sedentary, so not only does hitting the gym help alleviate any anxiety you already have, it also prevents it from taking hold in the first place.
Exercise Reduces Risk of Mental Illness
While certain mental illnesses are genetic or due to other factors that cannot be changed, research indicates that it is still beneficial for those people who may have a greater risk of developing certain conditions. For example, recent research from Cambridge University indicates that just one hour of exercise per week can reduce the risk of dementia by more than 50 percent. Scientists suspect that the positive effects of exercise on blood pressure, weight and overall health are behind the dramatic drop in risk.
Exercise Improves Response to Stress
Stress relief is often listed as one of the greatest benefits of working out. When you get your sweat on, your brain produces greater amounts of the chemical norepinephrine, which helps regulate how your brain responds to stress. Not to mention just the simple act of working out can help reduce stress. By removing yourself from the stressful situation, such as by taking a short walk around the block when pressure builds at work, you gain perspective and a little distance that helps you tackle your issues more effectively. Exercise can also help build your creativity and problem-solving skills, so you can better address stressful situations and improve your outlook; scientists believe that this is due to the brain boosting proteins created by exercise, which help improve thinking, learning and decision-making.
So the next time you have a rough day and you’re tempted to just park yourself on the couch and binge watch that hot new show while enjoying a glass of wine and some chips, try hitting the gym on the way home instead — or even just stopping for a stroll around a local park for a half hour. You’ll not only be doing some good for your heart, lungs and muscles, but also helping your mental health.