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How Does Exercise Improve Mental Health?

Jaclyn Lopez Witmer, Psy.D.

Taking care of your mental health is essential at every stage of life—from adolescence to adulthood. If left untreated, mental health concerns can interfere with your ability to function, negatively affecting your overall quality of life. Over time, concerns like anxiety and stress can lead to more severe mental health conditions.

According to behavioral health statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), mental disorders are common in the United States, with approximately one in five adults living with a mental illness. If you’re struggling to maintain good mental health, you’re not alone. Here’s how exercise can jumpstart your journey toward mental wellness.

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Barriers to Mental Health Treatment

Although mental illnesses are relatively common in the United States, approximately 60% of American adults and almost half of the young adults receive no treatment for their mental disorder. Although effective treatments—like therapy and medication—are available, many people find it difficult to access treatment, with barriers ranging from cost to stigma.

Physical exercise has been shown to improve various mental disorders, including depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and ADHD. Exercise is not only free from stigma, but it’s also safe, free of charge, easy to access, and available for everyone. Individuals with mild mental health concerns may use exercise as a standalone treatment or in combination with other treatments.

How does exercise affect mental health?

Whether you’ve been diagnosed with a mental health condition or you’re struggling to take care of your mental health, exercise can help. In combination with mental health services like psychotherapy, lifestyle modifications can also improve your mental health and quality of life.

Like medication in treating mental health disorders, regular exercise can boost serotonin levels, dopamine, and norepinephrine in the brain. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC), exercise normalizes and increases neurotransmitter levels, improving mental health symptoms and acting as an antidepressant and anxiolytic.

According to the World Health Organization, the other key benefits of exercise include enhanced mood, increased energy levels, mental clarity, and improved cognitive functioning. Exercise can help lower the risk factors associated with psychological and physical health conditions, improve your self-esteem, and help you form more meaningful relationships with others.

According to the Mental Health Association, lifestyle modifications are significant for individuals with serious mental illnesses such as substance use disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and schizophrenia. For most people, five minutes of moderate exercise leads to the release of endorphins, which produce powerful mood-boosting and stress-relieving effects.

Other Treatment Options for Mental Health Conditions

Although exercise and other lifestyle modifications can help you take control of your mental health, everyone is different, and some people may need additional support in achieving good mental health. Alternatively, some people with mental health disorders may find it difficult to exercise due to physical health conditions. Whether you’re looking for additional support or alternative treatment options, some valuable resources include:

Support Groups

Support groups help reduce loneliness and stigma by allowing individuals with mental health conditions to connect with others in a safe, confidential group setting. During support group sessions, you can open up to others about your mental health, learn different coping skills, and form meaningful relationships with other group members.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), support groups are beneficial for individuals with substance use, drug use, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers helpful support groups for individuals and family members of individuals with mental health disorders, including NAMI Family, NAMI Basics, and NAMI Peer-to-Peer.

Hotlines

If you’re struggling with poor mental health or experiencing a mental health crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for immediate mental health support. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website or call the SAMHSA National Hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Therapy

Depending on the severity of your mental health symptoms, therapy may be a valuable resource in helping you achieve positive mental health. To reduce barriers for those seeking mental health treatment, the United States Department of Health and Human Services has relaxed HIPAA regulations, increasing access to online mental health services around the country.

If you’re unsure where to start, use WithTherapy’s therapist search tool to find and schedule an appointment with a licensed therapist. Whether you’re trying therapy for the first time or considering the transition to online therapy, working with an experienced mental health professional can help provide the support you need in your journey toward mental wellness.

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