How 30-Minutes of Exercise a Day Can Benefit your Mental Health

Woman running outdoors

With fall just around the corner, there is no better time to take advantage of the nice weather and engage in your favorite outdoor activity. We know that these activities, whether riding a bike, playing sports, or going for a walk, improve how we feel physically, but did you know they can also have a positive impact on our mental health?

Someone looking to treat mild depression may look to therapy or medication, but exercise is often also recommended as an effective treatment option by clinicians. While those who are struggling with their mental health are urged to seek the advice of a medical professional, research shows that activities that increase heart rate can have a positive effect on a person’s psychological health.

A report by the John W. Brick Mental Health Foundation which looked at the past 30 years of studies on the connection between exercise and mental health found that 89% of the cases they reviewed found a positive relationship between the two.

“There’s some really fascinating research showing that you can effectively treat depression using exercise,” said Dr. Carolyn Rabin, director of the Clinical Health Psychology concentration. “It’s as effective as supported psychotherapies like cognitive therapy, and even anti-depressant medication, so it’s a really powerful intervention for a number of things.”

Physical activity causes our brain to increase chemicals like serotonin, which is released naturally to help regulate our mood and also plays a significant role in sleep, digestion, and bone health. Since depression occurs when our brain produces too little serotonin, exercise can directly impact mood and performance.  

In order to treat mild or moderate depression, Rabin says the level of exercise does not have to resemble a bodybuilder’s routine.

“The recommendations are to do moderate intensity [workouts] like a brisk walk. [Like] you’re walking fast enough to catch your bus. You should still be able to talk, but maybe not sing,” Rabin said.

She explained that the accumulation of a total of 150 minutes, or around 30 minutes for five days a week, can be enough to not only reduce the risk of illnesses like heart disease, but also increase self-esteem, and improve mood. For those who engage in higher-intensity workouts, the same benefits could be experienced in half the time. Those eager to adopt a workout plan should break down the process into a series of manageable goals, in order to establish self-regulation and increase the likelihood of success. 

As a health psychologist, Rabin has spent most of her career working with patients to incorporate and support healthy behaviors to address these types of emotions. 

“We don’t necessarily think of mental health providers serving this role but it’s something, particularly our health psychology students, learn to do,” Rabin said.

The field connects both physical and mental health to integrate these behavior changes and aims to improve patients’ well-being. The goal for health psychologists is to make it easier for patients to be an agent for their own change and build confidence in their ability to do so. By feeling in control of their own wellness, the next time a patient laces up their sneakers, they will know that it can not only improve their physical well-being, but their mental health as well. 


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