Everyone knows about the health benefits of exercise. It helps keep muscles and bones strong, controls weight, and improves balance and flexibility. But not everyone realizes working out also offers several mental health benefits, too. Numerous studies highlight the link between regular physical activity and mental health. An occasional walk is good for the soul, but keeping a consistent schedule at your gym may help ease the symptoms of depression and other mental health conditions.
Before you get super inspired by the following 10 ways going to the gym can help with mental health, make sure to check with your doctor for guidance on an exercise program that works best for you.
Tips for Getting the Most from a Regular Exercise Program
Don’t lace up those running shoes just yet. Consider the following tips for making sure you don’t burn out before you have a chance to enjoy the physical and mental health benefits of working out:
- Be realistic and slowly build up your workouts
- Set short-term goals, especially if you haven’t exercised in a while
- Find a trainer with experience helping people with mental health conditions
- Be patient; studies suggest it can take eight weeks or more to feel mental health benefits
- Track your progress in a workout journal or an exercise app
Remember to vary your exercise routine to prevent boredom. For example, switch up your exercises every four weeks or so. Are you worried about lacking or losing motivation? Invite a friend to join you at the gym. You can help keep one another on track.
10 Ways Going to the Gym Can Help with Mental Health
Without further ado, here are the 10 ways going to the gym can help with mental health.
1. Boosts Natural “Feel Good” Chemicals
You’ve probably heard the term “runner’s high.” It’s a feeling of euphoria that long-distance runners get after putting several miles of pavement behind them. Well, guess what? You don’t have to be an amazing athlete to enjoy the endorphin-boosting effects of exercise. When you exercise regularly, your body releases the chemicals that create feelings of happiness, mainly endorphins.
In addition to putting a smile on your face, a natural endorphin flood also offers the following benefits:
- Natural pain relief
- Increased energy that may last several hours after exercising
- Improved mood
- Stress relief
The great news is that you don’t have to run a marathon to enjoy the benefits of exercise. Some people report feeling a release of endorphins after only 10 minutes of participating in some type of intense workout, and most feel the effects within 30 minutes.
Walking or running on the treadmill and weight training are the two forms of exercise most often recommended for endorphin production.
2. Improves Sleep
Just like exercise and mental health, good sleep and mental health have a bi-directional relationship. Mental health can affect your ability to sleep, and your sleep quality can affect your mental health. Sleep is especially linked to bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety. For example, sleep disruptions may induce or worsen both the manic and depressive periods of bipolar disorder. The hyperarousal state experienced by people with anxiety contributes significantly to sleep problems, and it’s estimated that around 75% of people with depression also have insomnia.
Your brain works hard while you sleep. It’s busy growing and repairing neurons, processing emotional information, and evaluating the day’s thoughts and actions to produce memories. A lack of sleep directly impacts brain health, and a brain that cannot regulate normal chemical production creates a higher risk for mental illness.
Exercise may be the simplest solution to disrupted sleep. It aids with sleep in the following ways:
- Causes changes in core body temperature, which mimics what the body does before falling asleep
- Relieves anxiety to help the mind relax at night
- May help realign circadian rhythms
- Exhausts the body to make you tired at night
A single 30-minute session can reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep. Regular exercise for at least four weeks produces even better results. Of the 10 ways going to the gym can help with mental health, getting a good night’s sleep may be the most enjoyable and easiest to achieve.
3. Increases Self-Esteem
Dealing with a mental illness can be tough on a person’s self-confidence. Hitting the gym is a goal-oriented experience, and meeting even small goals is a great way to build confidence. You are always building to complete one more rep, lift five more pounds, or walk five more minutes on the treadmill at the gym. Even people who haven’t exercised for years can see improvement in their stamina after only two or three visits. Going to the gym also gives people with mental health issues a social outlet to meet people with similar goals.
4. Builds Resilience
Whether your mental health issue was caused by trauma, genetics, or a combination of both, resilience is an important part of managing your mental health and coping with life’s everyday stressors. That’s especially true if you are also in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction. Regular exercise not only gives you a healthy outlet for dealing with difficult emotions but also helps you build physical and mental strength.
5. Improves Focus
Staying in the present moment is a significant challenge for most human beings, especially anyone coping with mental illness. The tendency to worry about the future or relieve past regrets can be challenging to control. During a workout, your mind and body are both occupied with lifting, counting, following an instructor’s directions, and remembering when to breathe. Instead of thinking about the things that cause more stress, you’re fully engaged in exercising.
6. Strengthens Immune System
Every session of moderate exercise sends millions of immune cells coursing throughout your body. Depending on the duration and intensity of your workout, you can increase those circulating cells by as much as 400%. Though the effect is temporary, lasting about three hours post-workout, regular moderate exercise improves your immune system’s response to the pathogens that can cause illness.
What does immunity have to do with mental health? Recent studies suggest a strong link between inflammation and mental health. This does not indicate that people can become immune to mental illness but that those with mental illness may be at higher risk for immune-system disorders and the kind of inflammation that leads to physical disease.
Adopting a healthy lifestyle that includes a diverse diet, restful sleep, and regular exercise strengthens the immune system. It may help people with mental disorders prevent or lessen the impact of inflammation-related diseases.
7. Increases Brain Health
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein found in the spinal cord and brain. Low levels of this protein are linked to depression, schizophrenia, and other mental health disorders. Working out can increase the level of BDNF in your body.
Some of the benefits of BDNF include:
- Production of new brain cells
- Improved mood
- Enhanced sleep
- Improved memory and learning
- Prevention of brain-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s
The natural production of BDNF declines as we age, but people of all ages can improve their BDNF levels with regular workouts. Getting in the habit of exercise for depression may also help you stay sharp as you age.
8. Helps People Get “Unstuck”
Individuals coping with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often feel “stuck” in their past trauma. Exercise forces you to focus on the movements and positions of your physical body. Paying close attention to your muscles and joints helps the nervous system move out of the immobilization stress response that characterizes PTSD and other forms of trauma.
9. Increases Energy
Dealing with mental health issues can be physically and emotionally exhausting, leaving you with little energy for social engagements or hobbies. Exercise increases energy levels so you can devote more time to the activities that make life enjoyable.
10. Affords a Sense of Control
Many people who have a mental health disorder report feeling a lack of control in their lives. Not knowing when a panic attack might hit or when the next bipolar episode will happen is unsettling, to say the least. No one can control all the aspects of day-to-day life, but some control is especially important to those coping with mental illness. Incorporating regular visits to the gym into your schedule is a productive way to regain some of the authority in your life and do something positive for your health at the same time.
More on Exercise and Mental Health If you’re struggling to cope with anxiety, major depression, or other mental health conditions, regular exercise may be the puzzle piece your self-care routine is missing. Indeed, many physical activities don’t require a gym membership, but many benefits of working out at a gym are also beneficial. You’ll meet new people, have an opportunity for fun, new exercise classes, and have trainers available to assist and motivate you. Contact us today to learn more about managing mental health disorders.