The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise: How Physical Activity Can Help You Become Less Anxious, Depressed and Stressed

Physical activity has many health benefits. It improves brain health, strengthens bones and muscles, helps manage chronic conditions, weight, and disabilities, and reduces risk of cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, some cancers, and premature death. Physical activity also improves mental health and overall well-being. Research shows that people who engage in physical activity on a regular basis have lower rates of mental health conditions and higher rates of emotional well-being compared to those who do not. Prospective studies on anxiety, depression, and stress suggest physical activity can protect against the development of mental health conditions, too.

This article explores the mental health benefits of physical activity, explains how promoting physical activity can support population mental health, and discusses ways to design environments for increased physical activity.

Mental Health Benefits of Physical Activity

There are many benefits of physical activity linked to increased self esteem and self efficacy.  Physical activity has been found to improve sleep, relieve stress, increase energy levels, promote self-esteem and progress cognitive function. Voluntary body movement increases body temperature which creates a calming effect to the mind and body and helps regulate a person’s circadian rhythm. In addition to increasing body temperature, physical activity also increases a person’s heart rate which can improve the body’s overall ability to respond to stress by stimulating the production of neurohormones. Physical activity also boosts brain power from strengthening memory to building intelligence. 

Physical activity releases serotonin and dopamine to the brain, which can boost cognitive function and self-esteem. A recent study showed that thirty minutes of physical activity has the same effect on the brain as a low dose of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, the most commonly prescribed antidepressant (SSRIs). Thirty minutes of moderately strenuous physical activity a day for three days a week is recommended by the Department of Health and Human Services in the United States in the 2nd edition of Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans to experience the mental health benefits and other benefits of physical activity activity. Tremendous benefits can accumulate even with small amounts of physical activity regardless of age, sex, race, ethnicity, weight status, or current fitness level. People of any ability and age can engage in physical activity. Examples include swimming, water aerobics, aquajogging, running, brisk walking, biking, wheelchair rolling, climbing stairs or hills, and playing sports like tennis and basketball. People with mobility issues have found that exercising in the water reduces joint discomfort and supports the body. Even at low levels, increasing physical activity can have mental health benefits that can improve mental health on a population scale.

Interventions involving physical activity should be encouraged and incorporated in routine care of providers for those who live with mental health conditions. Physical activity can be used as a type of therapy and has been proven to be specifically beneficial for people with mental mental health conditions. It not only improves a person’s cardiovascular and overall physical health, but also boosts mood and alertness. Physical activity can be used as a preventative health measure to promote mental health in general and the child population.

While there is much that can be done to increase levels of physical activity in communities, it is also important to recognize that people may experience barriers within their communities when engaging in physical activity. Barriers include unsafe neighborhoods, high cost, lack of access to facilities, lack of education of its benefits, and inaccessibility, like mobility issues or sight and hearing impairments. Poorly-built environments have been associated with high rates of mental health.shift systems, change practices and invest in programs to eliminate barriers to physical activity.

First page of Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans
Resource - Guide/handbook
Brought to you by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
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The Community Guide: Physical Activity
Resource - Website/webpage
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Step it Up! The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities
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Multi Solving with Physical Activity Promotion

Population health approaches to expand access to physical activity and increase community physical activity levels have potential to improve mental well-being at scale. 

Efforts to promote physical activity are an opportunity to multisolve for population mental health and address community health needs. Physical activity promotes belonging and inclusion within a community, health care and basic needs, healthy schools and complete communities. 

Multi Solving Opportunities
Actions and Changemakers
Belonging and inclusion
A sense of belonging in a community can make physical activity more enjoyable and create a better environment for everyone. For example, group activities for physical activity (i.e. zumba, pilates, cycling, yoga, water aerobics etc.) increase belonging and inclusion.
Federal law requires states, districts and schools to provide children and adolescents with or without disabilities to be provided equal opportunity to participate in physical education and physical activity. State leaders can promote physical activity and education at the district level and school levels by sharing these laws, policies and guidance. Additionally, state leaders can provide training to faculty and staff on how to create an inclusive environment for physical activity. The CDC has created a guide for Comprehensive School Physical Activity Programs that can be shared and used.
Health care and basic needs
The maintenance or improvement of health through prevention, diagnosis and treatment can help people stay healthy and increase physical activity within communities.
One example of a population health approach is a community-wide campaign with the goal of increasing participant knowledge of physical activity and its mental health benefits. Many states already have in place community-based efforts to increase physical activity and promote behavior change. A few examples are Eat Smart, Move More North Carolina, Mebane and City of Somerville. Additionally, the Tu Salud ¡Sí Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!) Campaign located in Texas supports country and city-level health-promoting policies, includes free exercises and health screenings, organizes community events for physical activity, infrastructure improvements like trails and walking clubs.
Healthy schools
Programs that account for the individual, family, school, and community can positively influence both student health behaviors and learning.
Schools and school districts are important partners in promoting physical activity and community health. Another way to promote physical activity within a community is developing health, nutrition and physical activity initiatives at schools. Schools can engage community services and resources to respond to the nutritional needs of students through direct contact with community organizations or school health advisory councils. 
Complete communities
When physical activity opportunities and activity-friendly spaces are designed, physical activity levels will increase within a community.
In order to increase physical activity in a community, there must be physical education as well as safe places to walk and bike, parks and access to affordable community centers. Actively-friendly communities inherently encourage physical activity and make communities better places to live.

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Elements of a Complete Streets Policy
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