Movement and your mind
From improving brain functions to lulling you to sleep, a little bit of exercise can go a long way in supporting your mental health.
Exercise may help boost your mood
When you’re feeling low, the pick-me-up you may need may be as simple as getting your blood flowing. Yes, we’re talking about exercise.
Some research has shown movement can be a mood elevator. It’s also shown exercise may help prevent and ease certain mental health conditions.1
But when you don’t feel well emotionally, it can be hard to find the energy to do some things. So it’s important to reach out for help if you’re not feeling well.
It’s also important to follow instructions from your doctor or other care provider if you’ve been diagnosed with a mental health condition.
Adding in exercise or other physical activities to your routine may further help you take care of your emotional health. Here are nine reasons to walk, dance, go to the gym or just get up and do a few squats — even when you don’t feel like it.
1. Cancel stress
Had one of those days? We’ve all been there. While it may be tempting to reach for your favorite comfort food or curl up in front of the TV, consider going for a walk to sweat out those feelings instead.
Exercise can reduce stress and release endorphins, which are our body’s natural feel-good chemicals.2
2. Reshape your brain
Struggling with your mental health doesn’t just impact your mood or habits. It may also impact the structure of your brain.
Take the hippocampus, for example. It’s a part of the brain that plays a central role in learning, memory, emotions and stress. Depression, the most common mental health condition, may shrink the hippocampus and other parts of the brain over time.3
The good news: experts think these changes are reversible. According to one study, exercise is one way to improve functions your brain performs daily, including managing your emotions, memory and speech. Brain functions can be affected if you have depression.4
3. Improve your mood
In life, it’s easy to sweat the small stuff. Looming deadlines, a broken washing machine, long lines at the pharmacy. Sometimes these everyday challenges can be enough to push us over the edge.
Turns out adding activity to your day, however you can, may help put things into perspective and lower your stress.
Making it to the other side of a workout is good for you. The energy you put into a workout can alter your dopamine (a feel-good chemical in the brain) balance and boost your mood for the rest of the day.
4. Get better sleep
When you’re feeling low, quality sleep can help you feel better. In sleep, memories are stored. Emotions are rehearsed. You reload serotonin (another feel-good chemical in the brain) and dopamine. And the brain gets recharged.
If you’re struggling to get the Zs you need, get moving. Many people who are active often sleep better compared to those who move less during the day. That’s according to a review in Advances in Preventive Medicine.5
The cool part: It didn’t matter what kind of exercise you did or how intense it was.
5. Help prevent feeling down in the first place
There are many possible reasons someone might have symptoms of depression. But what experts tend to agree on: self-care can go a long way toward reducing your risk. A study in The American Journal of Psychiatry followed nearly 34,000 healthy adults over age 11.
The findings? People in the study who exercised even 1 hour a week experienced less depression. The results also suggest if all people in the study exercised, 12% of new depression diagnoses would have been prevented.6
6. Bring back calm with nature
Take a hike. No, literally. Being in nature can be calming. Some research shows that regularly being active outdoors can reduce worries and lead to more positive feelings.7
Bonus: being outside in your neighborhood or gardening counts.
7. Boost growth of your brain cells
Movement triggers the production of a protein that affects mood and your thoughts in a good way. It’s called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).8 So the next time you’re hemming and hawing about going for a walk or run, think of it as food for your brain.
8. Help ease feelings of anxiety
Doing an activity you enjoy that also gets you moving may take your mind off your worries.9 And it may boost your confidence to tackle everyday challenges.
A large-scale Swedish study of people who ski found that being physically active cut the risk of developing anxiety by more than half.10 Other research shows exercise may also reduce anxiety symptoms if you have anxiety or a stress-related condition.11
(The signs of anxiety aren’t always clear. Learn how to spot them.)
9. Get benefits similar to some medications
Medications can be necessary and work well in treating depression and other mental health conditions (especially if you have severe symptoms).
Yet there’s something to be said for the power of movement. Recent studies of adults with depression suggest that supervised aerobic exercise can give relief.11
Why? Well, it seems to target the same areas of the brain that impact mood. But you should always talk to your doctor about what treatments may be best for you.
Exercise to benefit your mental health
When you’re feeling low, it’s important to do what's best for you. Sometimes, that’s rest. Other days, it could be talking to a friend. But just know that even small doses of exercise may do your body — and mind — a world of good.
Find mental health resources from Optum that fit with your life: get on-the-go support from Sanvello, work virtually with a dedicated coach from AbleTo, access resources through your employer or health plan through Live and Work Well, or find a primary care doctor near you.
Check with your doctor or medical care provider before beginning any exercise routine.
Call 911 if you or someone you know is in immediate danger. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Line 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.
Doc talk: Exercise and your mind
Alex Dimitriu, MD, founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine (Menlo Park, California) weighs in on the connection between your mind and body.
- We were born to move. Any exercise is a nod to one of your basic needs. That can naturally make you happier.
- Sleep is the spa of the brain. It helps reload feel-good chemicals in your brain (aka serotonin and dopamine).
- Exercising outside may be a double benefit from both the activity and the outdoors.
- A dose of exercise can produce brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is like fertilizer for your brain cells. When someone is depressed or stuck in anxiety loops, any change to the brain’s wiring can be helpful.
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- CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics. Review of the brain health benefits of exercise. Last updated June 3, 2020. Accessed March 31, 2022.
- American Psychological Association. Working out boosts brain health. Last updated March 4, 2020. Accessed April 29, 2022.
- Advances in Preventive Medicine. Interrelationship between sleep and exercise: A systemic review. Last updated March 26, 2017. Accessed March 31, 2022.
- National Institute of Mental Health. Depression. Last updated February 2018. Accessed March 31, 2022.
- The American Journal of Psychiatry. Exercise and the prevention of depression: Results of the HUNT Cohort study. Last updated October 3, 2017. Accessed March 31, 2022.
- Psychology Today. Nature and Mental Health. What is the link? Last updated October 22, 2019. Accessed April 26, 2022.
- Journal of psychiatric research. Assessing BDNF as a mediator of the effects of exercise on depression. Last updated February 8, 2020. Accessed April 26, 2022.
- Mayo Clinic. Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms. Last updated September 27, 2017. Accessed March 31, 2022.
- Frontiers in Psychiatry. Physical activity is associated with lower long-term incidence of anxiety in a population-based, large-scale study. Last updated September 10, 2021. Accessed March 31, 2022.
- Psychiatry Research. An examination of the anxiolytic effects of exercise for people with anxiety and stress-related disorders: A meta-analysis. Last updated January 6, 2017. Accessed May 5, 2022.
- JAMA Psychiatry. A Mendelian Randomization Approach for Assessing the Relationship Between Physical Activity and Depression. Last updated January 23, 2019. Accessed April 26, 2022.