Health and Fitness

How Exercise Combats Stress and Improves Mental Health

By Shadreck Mhlanga

Exercise is excellent for improving many different aspects of our physical wellbeing and is especially beneficial for our mental and emotional health.

Exercise and mental health go hand in hand, and of recent, science has a lot to contribute to this topic.

Let's look at the mental health benefits of exercise and see why we feel like a million bucks after a spin class or get that post-working out "high" after a morning run – as well as the long-term health benefits.

Mental health benefits of exercise

Helps with managing major depressive disorder

After reviewing several randomised trials testing the efficacy of exercise on chronic depression, a team of researchers found that participants who trained for three or more sessions each lasting 45 to 60 minutes saw a notable improvement in their symptoms.

On average, the participants began noticing a difference after around four weeks of regular exercise. Still, the researchers suggest working out regularly for at least 10-12 weeks to start seeing more quantifiable results.

Anxiety relief

You’ve probably heard of runner’s high, that energised feeling and sense of euphoria you get after an intense workout. That’s due to your body releasing hormones - enkephalins and endorphins - that can improve your mood and relieve stress. Although these feel-good hormones are integral for creating this sensation, the fact is, exercise also a great way to refocus and feel rooted in the present moment.

Think about it – when you concentrate on an intense workout, what do you think about most of the time?

Probably about how you're out of breath, how your feet are running in sync with the beat of the music you're listening to, or maybe how much your arms are burning while lifting weights.

Focusing on your body rather than ruminating about worries can help you realize you're more than your thoughts.

May help with confidence and self-esteem

Low self-esteem and confidence levels are common among people suffering from mental illnesses or distress. Exercise shines in this realm once again.

Just think about how great you feel when you complete a workout, especially when you weren’t in the mood to work out in the first place.

Small accomplishments like these can add up and make you feel fantastic.

By creating a workout plan that you can stick to – and setting goals that you can achieve – you’ll start feeling a sense of achievement that will continue to grow as you keep moving forward with your training.

In one study published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise, researchers found that feelings of wellbeing and heightened self-confidence improve after just 30 minutes of exercise.

In this study, the effects analysed lasted around 20 minutes following the exercise session, but as we discussed earlier in the case of depression, exercise seems to have an impact that's more far-reaching when it's completed regularly over several weeks.