5 ways exercise can benefit your mental health

Two women exercising in a park

The benefits of physical activity go well beyond growing stronger muscles or earning marathon medals. There is an ever-growing body of research that shows a link between exercise and positive mental health outcomes for conditions like depression, anxiety and stress. The effect is so strong that some doctors even prescribe exercise as medicine to their patients!   

You don’t need to sweat it out at the gym for hours every day to reap the benefits of exercise for your emotional wellbeing. In Australia, the official recommendation for physical activity for adults is to be active most days, preferably every day, adding up to: 

  • 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate activity each week (brisk walk, golf, mowing the lawn, swimming), or 
  • 1.25 to 2.5 hours of vigorous intensity activity each week (jogging, aerobics, fast cycling, soccer, netball), or 
  • a combination of moderate and vigorous activity.  

If you’re not at this level of physical activity yet, just start where you can – whether it’s a few laps around your backyard or two minutes of bodyweight exercises in your living room – and slowly build your way up. 

Stay consistent to get the most benefit of exercise for improving your mental health. Sure, a one-off session can boost your mood for a short time, but doing it regularly will help you achieve long-term benefits.   

Looking for weight loss motivation, dinner inspiration or more exercise ideas? Check out the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet blog

Here are five ways exercise affects mental health conditions:

1. Boosts blood flow 

Exercise, specifically aerobic exercise which increases your heart rate, boosts blood flow to your brain. This gives your brain a fresh supply of oxygen and the nutrients it needs to function well. All this circulation allows you to think more clearly, minimising the fogginess that can come with feeling depressed, anxious or stressed.   

2. Releases feel-good chemicals 

Exercise can leave you feeling relaxed, happy and upbeat for hours after you’ve finished your walk, swim or dance session. This is because during exercise, your body releases a cocktail of feel-good, mood-enhancing hormones like endorphins, serotonin and dopamine. At the same time, exercise reduces the amount of stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, in your body.   

3. Helps you sleep  

Think about the last time you had a bad night’s sleep. You probably felt irritable, grumpy and downright upset the next day! Good quality sleep is essential to your overall health and wellbeing, but unfortunately, sleep issues and mental health conditions often go hand in hand. They can also make each other worse; if you feel anxious, you may not sleep well, which can make you feel even more anxious.   

Regular exercise improves sleep quality, making it easier to doze off at night and achieve a deeper, more restful sleep.  

The only thing to be mindful of is the time of day you exercise; doing anything too vigorous close to bed time may actually make you feel more awake. The best way to see what works for you is to experiment with different types of exercise at different times of the day.  

4. Keeps you social 

There’s nothing quite like a meaningful talk and shared laugh with a friend to make you feel relaxed and happy. Social relationships are so important for our mental and physical health that they’re even a marker for potential disease and early mortality. 

Using exercise as a social activity gives you a powerful mood-boosting, stress-busting combo. Moreover, exercising socially means you’re accountable and more likely to carry out the exercise – you wouldn’t want to ditch your friend on your morning walk just because you don’t feel motivated that day!  

Studies also show that feeling social cohesion can improve mental health outcomes. So whether it’s signing up to a regular dance class, joining the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet Private Facebook Group or starting a local walking club with other members, finding a community and feeling a sense of belonging can help to reduce mental health symptoms.  

5. Helps you achieve your goals   

Goal setting and goal attainment are powerful tools used by professionals for mental health recovery. Actively working towards something can instil hope and purpose, and achieving the goal can leave you feeling a sense of vitality, personal growth and satisfaction.  

Setting goals around exercise is a great way to promote physical and emotional wellbeing – but they have to be targets that you can realistically achieve. If you’re starting from a baseline of zero to minimal physical activity, then aiming to run a marathon in two months is simply setting yourself up for failure.  

Make your goals SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound. And don’t forget to celebrate when you achieve your goal! Reward yourself with something that’s not food-based, like a manicure, a new pair of shoes, or a massage.

Exercise, when used alongside recommendations from your doctor, can offer a range of benefits to your mental health.  

If you are experiencing depression and/or anxiety, or think you might be, please seek help from your GP or call:  
Lifeline 13 11 14 
PANDA 1300 726 306  
Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36 

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