Physical fitness is often misconstrued and packaged as a beauty tool rather than a health tool. When discussing fitness, it is common to hear topics relating to body weight and attractiveness. At the doctor’s office, you may be told that without regular exercise, you are more likely to face chronic health obstacles, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, etc. 

However, exercise is not merely about aerobic capacity or endurance. While physical fitness is known to improve a person’s physique and trim the waistline, physical fitness offers a plethora of positive benefits, such as added years to a person’s life. 

Researchers are currently working on deepening the understanding of physical fitness and increasing awareness of mental health benefits that come with it. While the amount of exercise needed, why it does what it does, and how we can translate knowledge into action still must be determined, the connection between mental health and exercise will continue to strengthen. 

Here are some of the mental health benefits of exercise:

Depression – Exercise has been shown to treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication, without the chance of any side-effects. In fact, Harvard Chan School of Public Health recently found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%. Not only does exercise decrease the risk of depression, but it also promotes changes in the brain, such as neural growth, reduced inflammation, releases endorphins, and distracts from negative thoughts. 

Anxiety – Exercise works as a natural anxiety treatment by relieving stress and tension, boosting physical and mental energy, and enhances well-being through the release of endorphins. By focusing on the sensations of your feet hitting the ground, the rhythm of your breathing, or the feeling of the wind on your skin, you’ll not only reap the physical benefits of exercise, but you will add a mindfulness element to your routine.

PTSD and trauma – Evidence points to exercise as a powerful combatant to PTSD and trauma. By focusing on your body and the feel of the exercise, research has shown that this can help your nervous system get “unstuck” and begin to move out of the immobilization stress response that characterizes PTSD and trauma. Outdoor activities, such as hiking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and skiing, have been shown to reduce the symptoms of PTSD. 

Increased energy – Start with a few minutes of exercise per day, and as your energy increases, spend a few extra minutes on your routine. Increasing your heart rate several times a week enhances your get-up-and-go energy. 

Better sleep – Even short bursts of exercise during the morning or afternoon can help to regulate sleep patterns. However, nighttime activities should be more relaxing, such as yoga or gentle stretching.