Exercise for Mental Health: Why Movement Can Help Anxiety and Depression

It’s easy to see how our mental health can impact our exercise routines. After all, if we’re feeling anxious or blue, we’re less likely to want to jump out of bed for a workout.

But what about exercise for mental health? It turns out that’s true, too—our exercise routines themselves can impact our mental health. If we’re moving our bodies regularly, we may be doing a good job of warding off the worst of our anxiety and depression.

For high-performing people, movement isn’t usually a problem. It tends to be something we get plenty of!

There’s a balance to strike, however. And to figure out what that balance is, it’s important to first understand the science behind the benefits of movement for mental health.


Understanding the Benefits of Movement for Mental Health

By now, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the theory that exercise can improve our mental health.

Maybe you’ve heard it from your doctor, your coach, a counselor, or even loved ones. You’ve definitely, by now, seen online ads for any number of new fitness programs extolling the benefits of an exercise routine—mental health improvement being one of them.

But… Why? Why does physical exercise impact our mental health? How can it target and affect the same processes and parts of our brain that, for example, antidepressants do? How can exercise for mental health and a pill do the same things?

The key may lie in a protein called BDNF, short for brain-derived neuropathic factor. BDNF is a molecule that stimulates the growth of new cells, possibly in the part of the brain that deals with learning and memory.

In studies, people with depression tend to have lower levels of BDNF.1 And you guessed it—exercise increases the production of this protein. Just like antidepressants do!

Because a solid foundation of BDNF is useful for our ability to learn, it can also help us engage with therapies and strategies that manage anxiety and depression in other ways, as well.2

Even beyond the production of the BDNF protein, regular exercise helps our bodies fight inflammation and tame our stress responses—both important factors in staying happy and healthy.


Medication vs. Exercise for Mental Health

So if the evidence shows that exercise can have a similar impact on anxiety and depression as antidepressants and other medications do, why bother with exercise for mental health?

Pills are quicker and easier, aren’t they?

Maybe not. Beyond the many other benefits of exercise—weight management, cardiovascular health, and social interactions, to name just a few—speed is an alluring consideration. While antidepressants can take weeks or even months to deliver their full benefit, exercise produces immediate endorphins… Mood elevators you can feel almost instantaneously.

And medications can be difficult to tailor to the individual. Some types will work better for any single person than others, and dosing can be tricky, too. And because they take so long to fully kick in, you can spend quite a bit of time on the “wait and see” part of finding the right combination.

That time spent is absolutely worth it when medication is the right way to go—and in many cases, it is. But moving your body is a strategy that can, for many of us, be employed right away, and with little risk of side effects. And it can help us feel better both in combination with medications and on its own.

When it comes to physical movement, the tailoring you’ll need to do is simply finding a routine accessible to you, that you’ll enjoy!

High-Performers and Movement for Mental Health

For high-performers, regular movement may not be a problem.

Athletes, for example, have consistent and rigorous training schedules. Stage performers must stay active and limber, and many high-performing executives have exercise routines they stick to religiously.

So why do many high-performers still struggle with anxiety and depression? Don’t these exercise routines check all the boxes?

Maybe! Anxiety and depression don’t have a single cause, and they don’t have a single treatment, either. A clinical psychologist can help you navigate these and other mental health challenges, if you’re struggling.

And the important thing to note is that, while exercise is a great approach to dealing with depression and anxiety, more exercise doesn’t always lead to better results.3

There are a variety of possible reasons for this, and those reasons are as unique as the individual. Maybe the focus on one sport, for example, feels a lot like work sometimes… So for an athlete, focusing on different, gentler, and lower-stakes movement will be the key to supporting mental health.

Perhaps the c-suite executive is just really busy—and trying to cram an intense workout into a too-small period of time, too often. And maybe those workouts have become a source of stress, burnout, and under-recovery.


Identifying a Healthy Exercise Routine

How can we figure out if our pre-existing movement routines are helping or potentially harming our mental health?

Here are some things to consider.

Your exercise routine might need an overhaul if it…

  • Is exhausting, with infrequent rest days;
  • Feels like a chore, or something you usually aren’t excited to do;
  • Becomes something that keeps you from spending time with family or friends or consistently prevents you from meeting other obligations; or
  • Requires an overly-strict diet.

A healthy and mentally-calming exercise routine should be…

  • Flexible enough to accommodate sick days, recovery from injuries, time for rest, and special occasions with loved ones;
  • Something you look forward to and enjoy, at least most of the time;
  • Varied enough to stay interesting and utilize different muscle groups; and
  • A way to feel stronger, more flexible, and connected to your body.

How to Choose an Exercise for Mental Health

The best movement for stress relief is the one you’ll stick to and reliably enjoy! You want to make sure you have access to the space or equipment you need, and that engaging in the exercise you choose won’t feel like a hassle or cause more stress in the long run.

If narrowing down a new or stress-relieving exercise feels difficult, start by asking yourself a few questions:

  • What’s your average day like? If you spend most of the day seated, staring at a screen, or on conference calls, for example, would it feel like a welcome change to engage in something like yoga, which would allow you to stretch out, close your eyes, and enjoy stillness and silence? Maybe you work from home, alone, and would enjoy joining a low-pressure softball league, instead.
  • What’s your ideal locale? Are you in a climate that makes outdoor activities easy to accomplish all year ‘round? Or will you need to accommodate for changes in weather? Would you enjoy an indoor activity?
  • Do you want to bring a friend? Or make a friend? Think about whether you’d prefer a solo or partnered activity.

Stress-relieving movement can come in many forms—even beyond what we usually think of as typical exercise! Things like archery, swimming, frisbee golf, kickboxing, practicing martial arts, or spending time on a miniature trampoline… All of these things are valid ways to get in new kinds of movement that can benefit your mental health.


Don’t be afraid to give something new a try!




1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6698103/
2 https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-exercise-boosts-the-brain-and-improves-mental-health-180979511/
3 https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpsy/article/PIIS2215-0366(18)30227-X/fulltext

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