5 Powerful Ways Fitness Boosts Your Mental Health

Some benefits of working out are immediately obvious—see: smiling #SweatySelfies, pounding hearts, and even a quick burst of energy. Then there are the longer-term but still evident effects on our physical health—a healthier heart, stronger muscles, more flexibility. But maybe one of the most important effects is one we can’t see: how it impacts our mood and mental health.

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month this May, we’re digging into the science (and experiences of our very own obé fam) about how fitness benefits our mindsets as well as our bodies.

1. Exercise makes you happy.

Elle Woods was right. You’ve probably heard this before, but we’ll say it again: Exercise is proven to help boost your mood by upping levels of certain “feel-good” chemicals in your brain. In fact, since the positive effects of exercise on mood are so well-documented, doctors often advise people dealing with symptoms of depression or anxiety to add movement to their routine.

That’s not to say it’s always easy to get moving when you’re feeling down—which is something that instructor Peter T. knows all too well. During an extremely low point in his life, Peter found it hard to show up for anything, let alone workouts. Then, as he started to climb his way out of the dark place, fitness—Ride in particular—helped him immensely.

“With spinning, you’re in a little box, doing very simple moves, so I would just zone out and fantasize about the life I wanted to have, instead of focusing on what I hate,” he recalls. “Energy attracts energy, and when you focus on good things, good things come to you.”

2. Exercise can improve your body image and self-confidence.

Based on some of the incredible posts in the obé fam Facebook group, the boost in self-esteem is one incredible mental health side effect of exercise that many of us experience. And guess what? Even fitness instructors struggle with self-confidence at times—including obé instructor Mary W.

Just like the rest of the fam, exercise has helped her through struggles with self-confidence and body image. “I think I speak for many people out there in that I have not always had a great relationship with exercise,” Mary says. “I was constantly comparing and trying to keep up with the instructor or my neighbor, and it’s heartbreaking to look back on.”

But she was able to change her relationship with exercise when she became aware that she wasn’t working out for the “right reasons.” Through working in the fitness industry, educating herself, and communicating with peers she looked up to, Mary began to improve her awareness around body dysmorphia and negative self-talk. “When I started exercising for the joy of it and not for punishment, every workout impacted my mood—and body image—for the better,” she says. “When I found the joy in exercise, it became a non-negotiable for my daily life.”

3. Exercise can carry you through tough times.

Peter’s energy is certainly sunny, bright, and exuberant in the Box, but he’s gone through some very dark times in life. As someone who’s struggled with depression, he knows it can be difficult to hear words like “It will get better” or “The light will come.”

But he assures us, it’s true—and he’s proof that you can make it to the other side, thanks, in part, to the power of movement. “Dance saved my life,” Peter says. “When I hear music and start moving to the beat, it gives me such a sense of freedom. I make architecture with my body—beautiful moving architecture.”

He also reminds us that it’s not the final product that’s beautiful; but the journey to get there, too: “It’s the entire process, the whole messy, intricate web that is your journey is beautiful.”

4. Exercise helps you sleep better.

Getting proper sleep is associated with everything good in life: healthier eating choices, a better mood, more energy to exercise. Plus, exercise in turn helps you sleep—so it’s a beneficial cycle! Research shows that moderate to vigorous activity during the day can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep at night, and enhance the quality of your sleep (no more lying awake counting sheep!). Getting in short bursts of activity can also help you feel less tired during the day, as it helps regulate your circadian rhythm, aka your body’s built-in alarm clock.

5. Exercise can be a form of meditation.

No doubt you’ve heard plenty of about the benefits of meditation. But let’s be real: Not all of us possess the Buddha-esque patience to just sit quietly and breathe. The good news: You don’t just have to sit in a quiet room to reap the benefits of mindfulness.

Movement, especially something that involves deep breathing like yoga or something repetitive like cycling or running, can serve as a mood-boosting form of meditation. “Exercise doesn’t have to be just one thing—it holds many roles in my life,” Mary says. “I practice yoga 4-5 days a week and that is my meditation. I find the repetitive shapes, movement patterns, and breathing to be completely therapeutic.”

In sum, a workout is not going to bring you down; in fact, it’ll pretty much always have a positive impact on your mood and your day. As Mary puts it, “My workouts provide me with the clarity and energy I need throughout the day. Never have I ever worked out and regretted it.”

If you’re in a mental health crisis, call the NAMI Helpline at 800-950-NAMI or text “NAMI” to 741741. Find more ways to get help here.

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Author

  • Locke Hughes

    Locke is a passionate health and wellness writer who has contributed to a range of print and digital publications including HuffPost, NBC News, Oprah Magazine, Women’s Health, Shape, SELF, MindBodyGreen, Thrive Global Greatist, Thrillist, and more.

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One response to “5 Powerful Ways Fitness Boosts Your Mental Health”

  1. I absolutely work out for the mental health benefits! I love the added benefit of making my body stronger when all I’m concerned about is my mind.

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