Wholeness Healing Today

Exercise Your Way to Improved Mental Health

Many people will start the year 2011 with the ever popular New Year’s resolution of starting an exercise program. Some begin an exercise program for purposes of weight-loss, some to improve their physical health, and others to build lean muscles. However, many people have made this same resolution in years past with varying degrees of success. One reason to add exercise to the list of resolutions this year is for its mental health benefits.

According to Sharma, Madaan, and Petty (2006), “Evidence has suggested that exercise may be an often-neglected intervention in mental health care.” Regular exercise has been cited to improve sleep, improve mood, reduce fatigue, increase mental alertness, produce stress relief, and increase socialization. Improvement of these symptoms correlates with reduction of symptoms for various mental health issues, particularly depression and anxiety. Therefore, many suggest the addition of exercise as a strategy to consider when planning treatment.

“Researchers at Duke University studied people suffering from depression for four months and found that 60% of the participants who exercised for 30 minutes three times a week overcame their depression without using antidepressant medication. This is the same percentage rate as those who only used medication in their treatment for depression.” (Panning, 2000) Exercise could be a great alternative for those looking to avoid pharmaceutical approaches and can also serve as an adjunct to psychotherapy.

One reason exercise benefits mental health is due to the natural release of endorphins during a workout. These chemicals are the body’s natural pain killers. Thus, an increase in endorphin levels can reduce pain and negative effects of stress. When secreted, endorphins can also produce feelings of euphoria.

Another reason that mood may improve through exercise is due to the increase in blood flow to the brain. According to Sharma, Madaan, and Petty (2006), “This physiologic influence is probably mediated by the communication of the HPA axis with several regions of the brain, including the limbic system, which controls motivation and mood; the amygdala, which generates fear in response to stress; and the hippocampus, which plays an important part in memory formation as well as in mood and motivation.” So exercise is also noted to have an influence on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and thus, on the physiologic reactivity to stress.

Three days of thirty minute moderate intensity aerobic exercise is recommended to achieve these suggested benefits of exercise for improving mental health. However, more nontraditional exercise such as yoga or meditation also has noted benefits for mental health. The effectiveness of the latter approaches may be due to the utilization of techniques that focus on looking inward and achieving a calm and centered state, which can aid in stress reduction.

While exercise is clearly a great option when looking to improve mental health, you should be careful in how you approach exercise. Self talk is significant in regards to the success of a new exercise regimen. For instance, if you begin a workout routine with thoughts of exercise as being a form of punishment or just another task you must force yourself into, it may be less likely you will reap the positive benefits. On the other hand, if you apply some effective cognitive strategies, such as using positive affirmations regarding your strength and ability, that is likely to produce great returns.
Exercise is great for many reasons. Getting started and following through can often, at times, be its own obstacle. Remember to set small goals in the beginning and continue to add and reevaluate as you achieve them. Make exercise a priority and create time during the week to dedicate to participation in this activity. Choosing a form of movement that you enjoy is most likely to increase your chances of success in reaping the benefits of exercise.

Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F.D. (2006). Exercise for Mental Health.

PrimCare Companion Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1470658/
Panning, J. C. (2000).

Mental Health Benefits of exercise. Find Counseling.com Mental Health Journal. Retrieved from www.findcounseling.com/journal/health-fitness/


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  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
    Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner

  • Jody Johnson, LICSW, LIMHP, began working at Wholeness Healing Center as a therapist in 2007. Jody graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha with her Masters in Social Work.  She received her bachelor degree in Social Work from the University of Nebraska at Kearney.


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