We all know that regular exercise is one of the best things you can do to support physical health. Countless research studies show the health benefits of exercise, from increased strength and energy to decreased risk of diabetes and all-cause mortality.
But physical activity is also key for mental health. Exercise is our number one recommendation for boosting mood and energy and managing stress. Studies have even found that exercise may be as effective as certain medications in treating and preventing mild-to-moderate depression and anxiety (1).
When it comes to the mental health benefits of exercise, remember that more exercise doesn’t always mean more benefits. For instance, too much activity can make mental and physical health worse, especially if you suffer with anxiety, depression, disordered eating, poor body image, or hormone imbalances.
Can you overdo it on exercise? And how can you reap the benefits of exercise for mental health without going overboard? Read on to learn how to support your mental health with a balanced exercise routine.
The Science Behind Exercise and Mental Health
First, let’s start with why exercise is key for mental health.
Exercise improves memory and learning
Several studies have found that exercise increases the number of new neurons in the brain.
Physical activity increases BDNF, a growth factor that supports neuron growth. Neuron growth improves learning and memory. Conversely, a decline in neuron growth may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and depression.
It acts as a natural antidepressant
Scientists have yet to understand the causes of depression, but several neurotransmitters are likely involved in the development of the disease.
Serotonin is a chemical in the brain. Many antidepressants, such as SSRIs, target serotonin. Serotonin helps us feel motivated and boosts mood.
Exercise increases the release of serotonin, which has a natural antidepressant effect on the brain.
It boosts focus
Deep thinking and concentration are functions of the brain’s norepinephrine system. Norepinephrine is a brain chemical involved in the body’s stress response; it helps enhance concentration and focus.
Much like some meds, exercise can cause more norepinephrine to be released. As a result, you feel more focused and productive.
It reduces pain and anxiety
Ever wonder where the term “runner’s high” comes from? Physical activity causes the brain to release the same chemicals responsible for the “high” sensation felt with opiate and marijuana use.
These chemicals are called endorphins. Endorphins help reduce pain and relieve anxiety. The more intense your physical activity, the more endorphins you release (and the happier/higher you feel).
This is also one of the reasons why it can be hard to know when you exercise too much. That is, endorphins can mask some of the symptoms of pushing your body too hard.
Physical activity also activates the endocannabinoid system, which further reduces pain sensitivity and improves well-being.
It helps manage anxiety
Several studies have found that exercise can help decrease your sensitivity to anxiety. In other words, people who exercise often are less likely to feel anxious in stressful moments. Exercise stimulates the stress response in a similar way that anxiety does. It increases heart rate, sweating, and breathing rate.
Researchers believe exposing someone with high anxiety sensitivity to physiological symptoms like rapid heartbeat via exercise may increase their tolerance for such symptoms.
It helps with addiction
Dopamine is the brain’s primary neurotransmitter involved in addiction. The brain releases dopamine in response to a pleasurable stimulus. Addictive substances, foods, and some behaviors can cause a quick and intense release of dopamine.
Repeated exposure to that substance, food, or behavior can eventually lead to addiction.
Studies have found that just 10 minutes of physical activity can alter dopamine circuits and lower addiction risk.
How to Find a Balanced Exercise Routine
Though exercise is one of the best ways to manage your mental health, it is possible to exercise too much.
A new research study from The Lancet Psychiatry looked at data from 1.2 million people in the U.S. to learn more about which types and how much exercise has the most benefits for mental health.
The study found that team sports, cycling, and aerobic exercise for 30 – 60 minutes, 3 – 5 times a week had the most benefits for mental health. People who exercised this much reported having fewer days of poor mental health, especially those with depression.
The researchers also found that any type of physical activity, including house chores and gardening, had a positive impact on mental health. Overall, people who exercised often had a 43% decrease in poor mental health days per month.
Recommended Reading: Tips and Tricks for Consistent Exercise
Finally, the study also found that working out more than 23 times a month or for longer than 1.5 hours was associated with worse mental health.
Remember: there is no one size fits all routine for exercise! It takes experimenting and trial and error to find the best plan for you.
That being said, there are some common symptoms of excessive exercise that you should look out for.
Signs of Excessive Exercise
- Constant aches and pains: it’s normal to feel sore 24-48 hours after a workout. However, if muscles and joints hurt constantly, you’re probably overworked.
- Feeling light-headed or dizzy on workout days: this is a classic sign of over-exercising and under eating. Your blood sugar or blood pressure might drop because you’re not getting enough carbs or electrolytes, respectively.
- Headaches on workout days: this is another sign of over-exercising, under eating, not drinking enough water and/or not sleeping enough to support your workouts.
- Trouble finishing a workout: pushing your limits at the gym can help you get stronger, but it can also stress out the body. If you can’t finish a workout, dial down the intensity. You should feel energized, not chronically fatigued, when exercising.
- Trouble breathing: this could be a sign of iron deficiency anemia or other conditions that limit your ability to get enough oxygen. Correct deficiencies before you do intense cardio.
- Sweating on no sleep: If you don’t get a good night’s sleep, choose gentle movement like walking, stretching, or pilates instead of HIIT.
- Repeat injuries or sickness: over-exercising can mess with immune function, making you more prone to injuries and illness.
- Changes in menstrual cycle or libido: If you stop getting your period or it becomes irregular, exercise could be altering your hormones. Over-exercising can also cause inflammation that decreases libido.
- Weight gain: tons of activity can bring on intense hunger, overeating and bingeing. Excessive exercise also stimulates inflammation that decreases thyroid function and increases stress hormones, both of which can cause weight gain.
Read more about the science behind over-exercise in this article by Laura Schoenfeld, RD: Are you overtraining? 9 Important signs that you need to exercise less.
Exercise should be used as a tool to support physical and mental health, not as a way to punish the body. You should feel energized and strong after a workout, not tired and weak. The goal is to train smarter, not harder, and find a balanced routine that works for your body, mind, and lifestyle.
We’d love to hear from you! Have you struggled with over- or under-exercising? Leave your answers in the comments or tag us on Instagram @CulinaHealth!