Workouts are a great way to stay physically healthy, and most people know they can improve things like heart and lung health. But there is another benefit of regular exercise that has less to do with your body and more to do with your mental well-being. Exercise isn’t a cure for mental health conditions, but it can help people with these conditions feel better and manage some of the symptoms. We’ll explore the link between how you move, and how you feel mentally.

What Happens in Your Brain When You Exercise

When you exercise your body, a lot of things happen in your brain at the same time. As your heart rate increases, your body pumps more blood (and the oxygen your blood carries) into your brain. That stimulates brain cell growth and triggers the release of chemicals called endorphins that work like an antidepressant and lower stress hormones like cortisol.

One study also found that exercise increased growth in brain cells in the hippocampus, the part responsible for learning and memory. When hippocampus cells do not grow, it could have the opposite effect, which can lead to depression.

Other Ways Exercise Can Improve Mental Health

In addition to the physical changes in your brain, exercise can have many other mental health benefits.

Distraction from negative thoughts

Exercise requires you to focus a lot on the task at hand. The rhythmic beat of your feet hitting the pavement, or your arms and legs kicking through the water can have a meditative effect on your brain. You can channel your focus toward your breathing, the environment around you, or even the beat of the music, which provides a welcome distraction to keep negative thoughts at bay.

Getting some fresh air

Whether you choose to walk around the neighborhood, jog through a local park, or take a bike ride or hike in a nearby forest, there are many mental health benefits of getting outdoors for your exercise. Research reveals that being outside can:

  • Lowering anxiety and depression symptoms
  • Reducing stress
  • Improving mood
  • Increasing levels of empathy and cooperation

Going outside gets you away from screens, and exposes us to fresh air and sunlight, which have physical health benefits. Sunlight also releases serotonin, a mood booster that helps us feel calmer. Even the sounds of the natural world, like the wind in the trees or the birds chirping, can be restorative.

Opportunity for social interaction

Another great benefit of exercise is the opportunity to meet and socialize with others. Many exercises are great social opportunities as well. Going to the gym and sticking your headphones in isn’t the best way to connect with others, so try these ideas if you want to be more social while you exercise:

  • Join a local walking, running, or cycling group. You can find groups on social media sites or with a quick online search. Look for groups that cater to different skill levels, such as beginner runners, walkers, or cyclists.
  • Ask a friend to exercise with you. If you have someone to exercise with, you’re more likely to stick to your routine (even when you might not exactly feel like exercising), and you get an opportunity to socialize.
  • Sign up for a specific class. Exercising in groups is a great way to meet other people, so check out classes like water aerobics, spin, or yoga. Often the same people attend these classes so you can meet new friends.
  • Play in a local sports league. For example, if you love soccer, sign up on a community team to play for fun. You’ll get a whole team of supportive new friends with similar interests.

If you’re looking for ways to naturally improve mental health, adding exercise to your routine is a great option to discuss with your doctor or Health Mentor.