The Role of Physical Activity in Mental Health: Exercise as Therapy

Physical activity plays a crucial role in promoting mental health and well-being. Numerous studies have demonstrated the positive impact of exercise on various mental health conditions, making it an effective form of therapy. Below are some key points highlighting the role of physical activity in mental health. 

Reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety

Regular exercise shows evidence of alleviating symptoms of depression and anxiety. Physical activity stimulates the release of endorphins, neurotransmitters that enhance mood and reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Exercise also helps in increasing self-esteem and promoting a sense of accomplishment. It only takes 10 minutes of exercise with an elevated heart rate to experience the benefits of endorphins. 

Boosts cognitive function

Physical activity has been linked to improved cognitive function, including better memory, attention, and problem-solving abilities. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, promoting the growth of new neurons and enhancing synaptic connections. This can lead to better overall cognitive performance and reduced risk of cognitive decline. 

Alleviates stress

Engaging in physical activity can help reduce stress levels. Exercise helps to lower cortisol, a stress hormone, and triggers the release of endorphins, which act as natural stress relievers. Regular exercise can improve resilience to stress and enhance coping mechanisms. Exercising is a great way to release stress while increasing the health of your brain and mind. Instead of reaching for a glass of wine after a long day, try putting on your tennis shoes and going for a power walk. You will feel much better afterward compared to how you felt before when putting your shoes on. 

Enhances sleep quality

Physical activity has a positive impact on sleep quality. Regular exercise helps regulate sleep patterns, making it easier to fall asleep and improving overall sleep duration and quality. Adequate sleep is crucial for maintaining optimal mental health. The key word here is *regular exercise to begin feeling the benefits of your sleep quality increasing. “Regular” can be defined as participating in elevated heart rate exercise at least 3-4x times a week. To feel the benefits of quality sleep, stop drinking alcohol for at least 3 hours before putting your head on your pillow for the night. 

Improves self-esteem and body image

Regular exercise can boost self-esteem and improve body image. Achieving fitness goals, feeling stronger and more capable, and experiencing physical improvements can enhance self-confidence and promote a positive self-image. These feelings of overall well-being will trickle into your day-to-day life and enhance your quality of life, something we all could benefit from! 

Provides a sense of routine and structure

Incorporating exercise into a daily routine can provide structure and a sense of purpose. Regular exercise helps establish a healthy lifestyle and promotes overall well-being. Creating an exercise routine helps prioritize self-care by putting your needs first. 

It’s important to note that while exercise can be beneficial, it should not replace professional mental health treatment. Depending on the individual’s needs, it is often most effective with other therapeutic approaches, such as counseling or medication. It is advisable to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any exercise program, particularly if you have pre-existing medical conditions or concerns. If you need assistance setting fitness goals, reach out to our office to get in touch with a therapist who can help. 

By: Lindsey Schmid, LPC-A

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