How Exercise Benefits Mental Health

Standard treatment for mental illnesses is therapy and medical care, but growing evidence from research indicates that exercise should also be included. More and more studies prove that being physically active, especially outdoors and in nature, is beneficial for mental health. Exercise can improve mood and reduce stress, relieve symptoms of anxiety disorders and depression, and even lessen the impact of trauma. Physical activity can benefit both patients diagnosed with mental illnesses and healthy people who want to maintain good mental health.

Mental illnesses ranging from common anxiety disorders to rarer, more severe conditions like schizophrenia can be relieved to some extent by exercise. Even people without a mental illness diagnosis can benefit from the boost in mood, stress relief, and focus on physical sensations that exercise provides.

If you are living with a mental illness or struggle with mental health issues from time to time, add exercise to your routine. If getting treatment, ask about how adding physical activity could enhance your overall wellness.

Benefits of Physical Activity

In both patients with diagnosed mental illnesses and non-clinical groups of people, exercise has been found by researchers to provide a number of mental health benefits. Research shows that regular activity improves:

  • Confidence
  • Emotional stability
  • Mood
  • Self-control
  • Body image
  • Overall well-being
  • Assertiveness
  • Independence
  • Memory

Regular exercise also decreases:

  • Substance abuse
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Phobias
  • Psychotic symptoms
  • Tension
  • Stress

Physical Activity for Stress and Anxiety

Everyone struggles with stress to some degree, and many people meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder. There is strong evidence from research that exercise and physical activity can reduce both. A number of studies have proven that exercise can protect against symptoms of anxiety disorders and distress, and enhance psychological well-being overall. This evidence means that exercise could help prevent the onset of stress and anxiety.

Other studies have looked at exercise as a potential treatment for anxiety. Results showed that regular exercise sessions, for between three and 12 weeks and for 30 minutes at a time, does reduce anxiety, especially in patients living with chronic physical illnesses. Another study found that patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), who did not respond well to standard treatments, saw reductions in anxiety after exercise sessions.

Exercise Can Relieve Depression

Depression is another common mental illness and one that seems to respond well to exercise. Physical activity has long been known to boost mood, but ongoing research has found that it can actually relieve symptoms in patients with major depression. The results for many patients are even as good as those seen with antidepressant medications.

Antidepressants are important for many people struggling with depression, but research indicates that for patients with mild or moderate depression, exercise can be just as effective at improving mood. And one study found that walking for an hour a day or running for 15 minutes per day significantly reduces the risk of developing depression.

PTSD, Trauma, and Exercise

Trauma disorders, such as PTSD, can be difficult to treat. A recent review of studies into the effectiveness of exercise in treating PTSD concluded that physical activity can be beneficial for these patients. The review found that exercise helps reduce symptoms in patients resistant to treatment in particular. In all types of patients, exercise used as an adjunct to standard treatment helped relieve symptoms and conditions that often accompany PTSD: anxiety, depression, and insomnia.

One reason that exercise may help PTSD patients get relief is that it forces the brain to focus on the body. It takes focus away from traumatic memories and intrusive thoughts. It may be especially helpful when using exercise for PTSD to direct patients to focus on breathing, heart rate, and other physical sensations when active.

Exercise in the Management of Schizophrenia

Being active has long been associated with a boost in mood and lowered stress, so it may not be surprising that exercise can help manage anxiety disorders and depression. But there is also important evidence that being active can improve symptoms of more severe mental illnesses, including psychotic conditions like schizophrenia.

In one study of a group of patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, half were assigned to undergo occupational therapy and half were given structured exercise programs for six months. The patients who exercised saw significant improvements in schizophrenia symptoms and depression as compared to those who only had occupational therapy. Those who exercised also needed less care during the study period.

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The Power of Nature

While any exercise is better than none and beneficial to mental health in so many ways, the most effective strategy is to combine physical activity with being outdoors. Along with all the research that indicates how powerful exercise can be in improving mental health is growing evidence that being exposed to nature also helps.

There have been many individual studies that indicate there are positive mental health benefits to being outside and in parks and natural spaces. One of these analyzed multiple studies involving more than 1,200 participants to determine just how being active in nature impacts mental health.

The results show that there are major positive effects on mood and self-esteem. Being active outdoors improves both, and the effect is amplified when in a space with water as well as greenery. Participants with known mental illnesses got an even bigger boost to self-esteem than others. Both men and women and people of all ages saw benefits.

Physical activity is an important aspect of the mental health benefits of being outdoors. However, studies have found that the improvements in mood and other mental health factors from nature cannot be solely explained by exercise. They also cannot be explained by social interactions that many people experience when exercising outdoors. Although not well understood, there does seem to be a direct correlation between a connection to green spaces and better mental health.

Choosing Residential Treatment with Recreation and Exercise

Even with all of this evidence that exercise is so good for mental health, it is important to recognize that it is not a substitute for professional treatment. If you are struggling with a mental illness, you can benefit from treatment that includes therapy and other strategies. The best results, though, may come from getting that standard treatment along with exercise and outdoor recreation.

When looking for a treatment facility for you or for someone you care about, consider the importance of exercise and nature. Look for treatment centers that understand this connection and include recreation, exercise, outdoor activities, and even meditation as part of the program.

Mental health is something that everyone can improve, including patients with diagnoses and people who have never met the criteria for a mental illness. Regular exercise is just one tool in better mental health that anyone can use. Never use exercise as a replacement for treatment, but add it into a healthy lifestyle, and use activity as a supplement for professional mental health care for improved results.

Our Mental Health Facilities

Constellation Behavioral Health is proud to be a leader and innovator of mental health services. Our integrated, shared system of care ensures quality of care across all of our facilities, with a distinct focus on providing a robust differential diagnosis, cultivating personal agency, and working closely with families and healthcare providers to ensure the best chance for lasting recovery. Coordination and collaboration of staff across our different facilities contribute to consistency of quality and shared treatment philosophies.

BrightQuest Treatment Centers

Located in Nashville and San Diego, BrightQuest specializes in complex psychiatric conditions, providing compassionate care to a vastly underserved population. With our unique therapeutic community model, BrightQuest is the long-term residential solution you’ve been looking for to provide your loved one with the tools necessary to live a healthier and more independent life.

Bridges to Recovery

Our Bridges to Recovery locations in Los Angeles and San Diego are designed for men and women struggling with mental health disorders who are seeking a safe alternative to hospitalization for their care. Many clients choose residential care at Bridges to Recovery because, despite their best efforts and dedication to treatment, they still are not living a stable and satisfying life. Our clinical expertise and nurturing home-like residences provide clients a safe and supportive environment to recover and heal. The quality and comprehensiveness of our integrated, intensive treatment program allow for rapid relief from suffering and tremendous growth, all in a few short weeks.

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