The Mental and Emotional Benefits of Physical Activity

Updated: Mar 11

If you’ve sat in a therapy session with me, then you’ve heard the words, “exercise” “physical activity”, and “healthy ways to decrease depression and anxiety” come out of my mouth more than once. I’m a big advocate for getting our bodies moving daily, and someone who exercises on the regular; and I believe that exercise helps with all the things I’m going to be talking about below.


When you hear the word exercise what comes to mind? ‘Spending hours at a gym?’ ‘Getting a personal trainer that is really expensive?’ ‘No time to fit it a workout routine into your already busy schedule?’ I’m sure we could come up with a big list of what exercise means to you. But,

lets talk facts! Exercise isn’t just about gaining endurance and having large muscles; it’s so much more than that. Yes, of course its great for our hearts, our pant size and the possibility of adding years to our life, but all of that isn’t what motivates so many people to continue to work out daily, even when they’d rather skip a workout or eat a large pizza. Of course we all have those days, and that’s okay too!


Individuals who exercise on a regular basis do it because it provides them with feelings of wellness and satisfaction. People also share they feel more lively, have better sleep, better brain function such as stronger memories, and feel more positive about themselves overall. Exercise is also an all-natural medicine for a variety of mental health issues.


When we exercise on a regular basis it also has a significantly positive impact on ADHD, OCD, depression, anxiety, and many other diagnoses. You don’t have to spend hours a day in a gym everyday, or train to run triathlons to gain the benefits of exercise. No matter is your 23 years old or 75 years old, and you’re a gym buff or never set foot in a gym, you can learn to use exercise as a healthy coping skill to start feeling better immediately.


Let’s break down how exercise can combat some of the most common mental health diagnoses.

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Depression and Exercise


There have been many published studies that demonstrate how exercise can treat moderate depression just as effectively as medication, and without the unwanted side effects. One study found that walking for one hour a day or running as short as 15 minutes a day can reduce the risk of major depression by 26%. Other studies have looked at relapse rates, and found that continuing on an exercise schedule can prevent relapses.


When we exercise it promotes all types of changes in the brain, including growth of neurons, reduced inflammation, and new patterns of activity that stimulate feelings of calmness and well-being. Exercise also releases endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain that energize you and make you feel good. Ultimately, exercise can also be used as a distraction technique, when you may be experiencing negative thoughts that make you experience depressive symptoms.



Anxiety and Exercise


Similar to exercise with depression, it also works with people who have symptoms of anxiety. Exercise alleviates the bodies’ muscle tension and stress, and improves our physical and mental energy. When we focus on how it feels with our bodies in motion it can be used as a mindfulness technique. One example would be if you were running, begin to notice the sensation of your shoes hitting the ground, or try to focus on your breathing. By incorporating mindfulness into exercising, you may improve on your physical endurance faster, but also break the cycle of the constant worries that flood your mind.



Stress and Exercise


When you’re under stress, you’ve probably noticed your body becoming tense, maybe your head starts to ache or your back and shoulders become tight, or even a tightness in your chest. Stress can also give us stomachaches, insomnia, or the need to use the restroom frequently. When we are experiencing some of these symptoms it can give us more stress, and our mind and body get into a vicious cycle.


We can use exercise and break that cycle to decrease our stress level. I’ve already mentioned how exercise releases endorphins in our brain, as well as being active relaxes our muscles and will relieve tension in our bodies. Our bodies and our minds are interconnected, so when one starts to feel good, so does the other.



ADHD and Exercise


If you have ADHD one of the best ways to reduce many of the symptoms is to exercise on a regular basis. When a person with ADHD exercises it also improves that individual’s mood, their concentration, motivation to get tasks accomplished and their memory. Getting and staying active by a form of exercise also boosts our brains dopamine, norepinephrine, and our serotonin levels, all which specifically affect our focus and attention. Exercising is really working similar to some of our common ADHD medications such as Ritalin and Adderall, but exercise doesn’t give you side effects.


Maybe you are reading this and thinking, I don’t really fit into any of the above-mentioned categories… I don’t have ADHD and I’m not really an anxious person… So how else can exercise help me? Well, lets keep reading!


Exercise also offers:


  • Sharper memory and thinking! Staying active stimulates the growth of new brain cells and helps prevent age-related decline.

  • You will have higher self-esteem! When we make exercise part of our daily lifestyle, we start to have a strong sense of self-worth and feelings of accomplishment when we make and hit small goals.

  • Better sleep! Even a really quick workout at some point in your day, can really help you get a good nights rest.

  • It’s a healthy coping skill! When life throws stressful situations our way, turning to a form of exercise to clear our mind, instead of alcohol or drugs, can help us cope with the challenge in a more positive way.



Try you skills at math! Remember the multiplication tables we all learned in school? Start with 2’s and work your way up or down. Then try counting backwards by 8 starting at 200. It isn’t that easy and you have to concentrate so you don’t lose what number you were on.


Grab a notebook or some loose paper and write it out. Writing can be another great tool for distraction. Through writing your thoughts down in a journal, you may find that your emotional self is able to refocus and regulate emotions.



How Much Exercise is Enough?


You don’t have to log miles on the treadmill six days a week or become a body builder to gain the positive benefits of exercise. As little as 30-minutes of moderate exercise five times a week. Don’t have 30 minutes to spare all at once, not a problem! You can break it up into two 15-minute or three 10-minute exercise sessions to still keep your mind and body fit.


Not everyone enjoys going to the gym, or maybe joining a gym isn’t an option right now due to finances or lack of transportation. Don’t worry; I’ve come up with other ideas to keep our bodies moving! Keep reading below!


  • At your home:

  • Clean the house

  • Wash the car

  • Do you enjoy gardening? This can definitely break a sweat!

  • This is a hard one, how about mowing the lawn with a push mower

  • Can you bike or walk to work or other appointments?

  • Try to take the stairs at work, skip that elevator!

  • Park as far as you can in the parking lot from the grocery store, and then walk in.


What other ideas came to your mind?


Laine E. Davis, PsyD

Postdoctoral Psychology Resident


Blair H. Mor, Psy.D.

Supervising Licensed Psychologist

Owner at MorMindful Therapy & Psychiatry


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