Did you know that exercise and good mental health go hand in hand?

I can sit here all day and list the health benefits of exercising, from toning your body to strengthening your immunity, but none of it beats the fact that a little exercise every day can help you get in a better mood.

Abstaining from exercise won’t only cost you your toned belly, but it may also chip away at your mental health.

But how does lack of exercise affect your mental health? To start with, it reduces your self-confidence, intensifies your depression symptoms, and can keep you on edge constantly.

Here, we’ll dive into exercise’s effect on your mental health, the science behind it, and how you can start exercising to help beat your depression or anxiety.

How Does Lack of Exercise Affect Your Mental Health?

Maintaining a busy daily schedule while cramming in some exercise can be challenging, to say the least. But when you know what’s at stake here, you’ll be motivated to try and make it work.

If anything, leading a busy life without exercise to take the edge off can prove to be harder than the alternative.

Here are several ways that lack of exercise can affect your mental health:

1. Nothing to Stop the Stress From Growing

You’re probably already familiar with stress and its symptoms, but let me give you a new perspective.

When you’re stressed, the drill goes like this: stress increases anxiety symptoms, including an irregular heartbeat, tight muscles, insomnia, and unhealthy eating habits.

Without enough sleep and sporting a couple of tight muscles, you’ll get even more stressed by the symptoms.

And without any way to break this cycle, stress can have a field day chipping away at your mental health.

Let me make it more scientific: when you’re stressed, your brain enters into alarm mode, releasing the main stress hormones, namely cortisol and adrenaline.

While cortisol increases glucose levels in your body and decreases the level of serotonin, adrenaline increases your heart rate.

When you work out, your brain counteracts these stress hormones by producing endorphins and serotonin, which brings your hormone levels back to normal and keeps the stress from growing.

2. No Break From Depression Symptoms

Depressed woman sitting on a bed

According to a Harvard study, depression is more than a mere chemical imbalance. Hundreds of factors go into depression, and that’s why there are plenty of different treatments for it.

One fact agreed on, though, is that exercise relieves some depression symptoms and can help you beat the disease alongside treatment. Likewise, a lack of exercise can cause depression symptoms to stay.

The reason is pretty simple; exercising triggers your brain to release more norepinephrine and serotonin, which are hormones and neurotransmitters that make you feel better.

Neurotransmitters are, in the simplest way possible, responsible for sending messages between the brain’s nerve cells. The increase in their level has shown to boost mood and relieves depression symptoms.

Most antidepressants work by increasing the level of neurotransmitters in your brain, so exercise is, in one way or another, a form of an antidepressant.

3. Mediocre Cognitive Functions

Who wants to run around with mediocre cognitive functions? The only right answer is no one. Even if you’re not at the top of your class, you don’t want to be the ‘average’ guy.

Well, here’s something you didn’t know: that average state of mind and the constant struggle to solve problems may be due to the lack of exercise.

The reason for that is one simple word: neuroplasticity.

In short, neuroplasticity is your brain’s ability to form synaptic connections. These connections are why you’re able to understand situations and react to them.

For example, imagine that a hot tea cup is about to get spilled on you. Firstly, you notice that the cup is about to get spilled, then you react to the situation by moving or catching the cup before it falls.

During this process, your synapses are connecting to neurons, which later connect to muscles, translating your thoughts into actions. If your cognitive functions aren’t sharp, you won’t act fast enough to catch that cup because your brain won’t be forming synaptic connections fast enough.

Now, back to our topic, what does exercise have to do with all this?

Exercise improves your cognitive function because it improves neuroplasticity, which, in turn, grants you a better attention span, problem-solving skills, and memory formation.

4. Nothing to Boost That Self Confidence

Nothing boosts self-confidence more than sweating out during vigorous exercise. Whether you just broke your deadlift record or ran for a full hour, that feeling of accomplishment is hard to achieve through other daily activities.

When you see the proud looks on your gym mates’ faces, your self-confidence will strike through the roof. Do this every morning before work and you’ll feel like an everyday hero.

Another way exercise boosts your self-confidence is by giving you a body you can be proud of. Feeling good about yourself can be easier when your belly is flat and your arms and legs show that you’re able to do some work.

With that said, it’s easy to conclude that a lack of exercise may cause your self-confidence to decline. That’s especially if you don’t indulge in any other activities.

Your brain can start playing tricks on you and make you feel lacking in this area. Over time, your self-image will depreciate in your mind, and your self-esteem will reduce significantly.

Just remember, that you can do something about it.

How Far Does the Impact of Exercise on Your Mental Health Go?

How significant is exercise’s effect on your mental health? Is it true that it can help you beat depression and keep your stress levels at bay?

Yes to both. The impact of exercise on your mental health goes as far as making you feel happier constantly and increasing the duration between stress episodes. It can change your lifestyle to a stable one if you do it consistently.

1. It Makes You Happier

As I’ve briefly illustrated earlier, exercise encourages your body to release happiness hormones. That doesn’t only increase your feeling of happiness, but it also keeps the negative feelings curbed.

Even if you’re not depressed, you may pass through a long period of time when you feel down for no reason. When you work out consistently, the level of happiness hormones in your body stays stable, granting you longer periods of feeling happy or content.

This also acts as a buffer. Bad things happen. If you’re not in good physical shape, then the effects of rough life situations just hit you that much harder.

2. It Makes You Calmer

Exercise’s impact also goes as far as helping you lead a calm life, especially if you have kids. Everyone knows kids can be a handful to handle sometimes, and the parents stressing all the time doesn’t help.

When you exercise, you relieve stress symptoms and enter into a state of relaxation, mainly because working out decreases the level of the main stress hormones.

When this happens, you’re able to deal with your kids and listen to them better because you’re freed from your own stressful matters.

3. It Helps You Beat Depression

Lastly, the impact of working out goes as far as helping you beat depression. It’s not a treatment, but it increases the level of neurotransmitters in your brain, which helps relieve depressing symptoms for a while.

If you exercise constantly, you may be able to deal with your depression better.

The Science Behind Exercise’s Good Effects on Your Mental Health

Exercise affects your mental health in more ways than one. The increase in happiness hormones level isn’t the only reason you feel better after exercise; there are other reasons that may be unrelated to the level of hormones in your body.

Here’s a full explanation of the science behind exercise’s effects on your mental health:

  • Exercising causes your brain to release endorphins and serotonin.
  • Endorphins are natural painkillers, and they change your mood instantly. Meanwhile, serotonin regulates your mood and sexual desire and promotes better sleeping. All these combined will make you feel good after working out.
  • Exercising alters the synaptic structure in some brain regions, improving synaptic connections, which, in other words, means improving neuroplasticity.
  • Better neuroplasticity means a better ability to grow neural networks, which improves your cognitive functions, including memory formation, attention span, the ability to learn, and problem-solving.
  • Working out boosts the availability of Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) in your body. GABA plays an essential role in relieving anxiety symptoms because it blocks negative signals in your nervous system and makes you feel calmer.
  • Exercising improves how you feel about yourself and increases your self-esteem, which makes you feel better automatically when you’re done with a workout session.
  • Exercising involves stretching your muscles, which reduces tension and soreness, making you feel more relaxed for a couple of days after working out.
  • Going through a vigorous exercise session can serve as an outlet for your stress, and it’ll get your attention off of whatever is causing you to be worried, even if it’s for a short while.
  • Working out at a gym means you get to meet people and socialize more, which, according to studies, makes you feel happier and improves how you feel about yourself.

Is Exercise a Good Alternative to Therapy?

Two woman doing yoga in a park

With all that talk about exercise’s effect on mental health, it’s normal to ask this question. Can exercise be a good alternative to therapy?

There is not a specific clear-cut answer for this. There are varying degrees of mental anguish that a person might experience and for quite a few situations, exercise is not enough to resolve the matter. But that also means that some people could experience awesome benefits from adding exercise into their life.

When exercise is such a simple thing to add to your life, it almost seems silly not to try it out if you’re feeling down.

How to Start Exercising to Boost Your Mental Health

You may now be thinking of starting a new exercise-based routine.

It can be difficult to decide where to start with all the different exercise trends around the world. Here are a couple of tips to put you on the right track:

  • Start with mild cardio exercises that won’t have you out of breath. If you start with vigorous exercising, you’ll get put off easily. I’ve seen this repeatedly. Start on a gradient, please.
  • If you can visit a gym, it’d be better because it can be hard to find the motivation for working out at home. Going to the gym means socializing and working out with others, which can be a huge mood booster.
  • Alternatively to a gym, you can exercise outdoors. You can start by running or jogging around the neighborhood before advancing to other exercises. Sunshine is also very good for you.
  • This book is a great example for addressing mental health through exercise. It’s aimed at people who want to exercise while suffering from mental health disorders. It’ll help you find the right exercise type for your case, as well as teach you about healthy diets and how they can help with your healing journey.
  • If you get bored with your current exercise plan, change it and try something different. What works for others doesn’t necessarily have to work for you, so keep trying until you know for sure what works for you best. Truthfully, most people don’t even try. Write down a few things and spend a week seeing what works for you.
  • Having a goal gives more motivation to work out. Even if you’re not looking to get slimmer or more muscular, try to put a goal for yourself, such as improving your body mass index or reducing the fat percentage on your body or even just the simple goal of becoming more physically active.

The Final Verdict

So, how does lack of exercise affect your mental health?

It leaves you vulnerable to stress hormones, it makes you feel bad about yourself, and it may cause some of your cognitive functions to decline.

The reasons exercise impacts your mental health are purely scientific. Working out releases happy hormones and increases the availability of anti-anxiety neurochemicals. In turn, this reduces your feeling of stress and keeps you calm for longer periods.

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