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Physical Activity Improves Mental Health

August 2022

Karen Ensle EdD, RDN, FAND, CFCS
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

Physical health problems significantly increase our risk of developing mental health problems, and vice versa according to the Mental Health Foundation. Nearly one in three people with a long-term physical health condition also has a mental health problem, most often depression or anxiety. Our bodies and minds are not separate, so it's not surprising that mental health can affect your body. Depression can come with headaches, fatigue and digestive problems, and anxiety can create an upset stomach, for example. Other symptoms can include insomnia, restlessness and difficulty concentrating.

Mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety aren't easy to treat. Medications help many but may fail or bring on nasty side effects. Talk therapy is time-consuming and expensive and neither approach is suited to preventing mental health disorders from developing in the first place.

It's hardly news that exercise is good for your physical health and has long been held as beneficial for mental health. But recently, researchers are now making progress in understanding how exercise works its mental magic and may be one of the least expensive ways of managing mental health disorders.

Physical activity can bring health benefits including elevated mood and reduced stress; and healthy eating can also improve mental health. Good physical health leaves an individual with personal positive feelings of oneself and their body. Research shows that people with a mental health problem are more likely to have a preventable physical health condition such as heart disease. As the American Heart Association says, "Physical activity boosts mental wellness."

Exercise has profound effects on the brain's structure itself, and it also provides other, more subtle benefits such as focus, a sense of accomplishment and sometimes social stimulation—all of which are therapeutic. And while more exercise is generally better, even modest levels make a difference. Here are some benefits of physical activity on mental health:

Exercise is a scientifically proven mood booster, decreasing symptoms of both depression and anxiety. It is a great way to keep you physically healthy and improve your mental wellbeing. Research shows that doing exercise releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins in the brain. Even a short 10-minute brisk walk can improve your mental alertness, personal energy, and mood. Take small steps whether you're tending your garden or running a marathon to include exercise which can significantly improve your quality of life.