Engaging in regular exercise is critical to maintaining optimal physical health and performance. Did you know that it also boosts your mental health and well-being? Some research suggests a strong connection between exercise and the prevention and treatment of psychological illnesses, such as depression and anxiety. Exercise also might help increase positive mental states and support cognitive function throughout your life. In addition, Warfighters and their families can use daily physical activity to remain strong and mission-ready, increase resilience, and boost overall well-being.
So, how does exercise support mental health? Physical activity can cause changes in certain hormones, endorphins, and other neurotransmitters in your body, which directly influence your mood, emotions, and brain health, both in the short and long term. Certain kinds of exercise, such as yoga, increase your awareness of how your body reacts to stress and other events in your life and can help you manage those reactions through breathing. In addition, getting quality sleep and rest forms the foundation of optimal mental health. Those who exercise regularly might be able to fall asleep quicker—and sleep longer and deeper—than those who don’t exercise.
Which mental health issues are helped by exercise?
There’s evidence that exercise can help treat and prevent certain mood disorders. Physical activity is associated with lower levels of depression, while an inactive lifestyle might increase your likelihood of developing depression. For those who already have been diagnosed with clinical depression, exercise can significantly reduce symptoms, especially when combined with traditional forms of therapy. If you haven’t been diagnosed with depression, but have occasional bouts of the blues, physical activity also can help regulate your mood and enhance positive emotional states. Exercise can help calm anxiety as well.
Physical activity also supports brain health and cognitive function. These benefits can last a lifetime too. For children, physical activity supports academic achievement. Higher levels of physical fitness, physical activity, and sport participation are associated with higher levels of cognitive performance in adolescents, teens, and adults too. Exercise also might reduce your risk of developing cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia.
Physical activity can boost your sense of self-esteem and self-worth too. Your assessment of how you look and how strong you feel plays a big role in how you feel about yourself, and exercise helps to maintain physical condition at optimal levels. Exercise that’s enjoyable and challenges you to improve your skill levels can help build your confidence. It also can instill in you the belief that you have what it takes to work through and overcome tough challenges. If you enjoy the social aspects of exercise, team sports and activities can enable you to create strong bonds with others through teamwork and belongingness.
Physical fitness can bolster resilience by enabling you to blunt your reactions to stress and buffer yourself from a range of mental health issues and emotional stress. Although exercise isn’t a solution by itself, it might help reduce your risk of mental illness and other potentially risky behaviors, including suicide. Despite research supporting the benefits of regular physical activity, most people don’t get enough to reap the benefits. Visit HPRC’s Training & Performance section to learn more about developing your own exercise program and sticking to it. Your body and mind will be grateful you did.
If you feel you're experiencing a potentially life-threatening problem, contact the Military Crisis Line online or call 800-273-8255 and press “1,” or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline online or by phone at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Psychological Health Center of Excellence (PHCoE) also has a 24/7 Psychological Health Resource Center featuring a hotline, email, chat, and phone number. And visit HPRC’s Mental Health page. In an emergency, please dial 911.