There’s no doubt that exercise helps people look better. It burns calories, sheds fat and helps to shape and define muscles. But what can exercise do for your mental health and self-esteem? You’ve probably noticed how good you feel after you’ve finished a tough workout, and you feel better about yourself because you did it. Is there a physiological basis for this? A literature review of researchers looking at exercise and mental health published in The Internet Journal of Allied Health Sciences and Practice came to some interesting conclusions. They looked at the effects of both aerobic and anaerobic exercise on mental health and self-esteem. Here’s what they found.
Aerobic Exercise is Good for Your Mind and Mood
The majority of research shows that low and moderate-intensity aerobic exercise boosts mood and self-esteem while reducing anxiety. As little as 20 minutes of light to moderate aerobic exercise can have mental health benefits. Research suggests that the mood-boosting effect of aerobic exercise comes partially from the release of natural brain chemicals called beta-endorphins.
In one study, researchers used a compound to block the action of endorphins on the brain. In this case, aerobic exercise didn’t have the same mood-elevating effects. This suggests that endorphins probably do contribute to the mental health benefits of exercise. Endorphins are the same chemicals that are believed to be responsible for “runner’s high”, the feeling of well-being that runners experience when they run.
Low and moderate-intensity aerobic exercise boosts mental health by reducing anxiety and depression and raising self-esteem, but high-intensity aerobic exercise doesn’t seem to have the same benefits. Intense aerobic exercise may actually increase anxiety in some people. This may be partially due to concerns about not being able to do the exercise because of its intensity. There’s also the possibility that greater levels of hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine released during vigorous exercise contribute.
Anaerobic Exercise and It’s Effects on Mental Health
Anaerobic exercise is exercise carried out in short bursts. It uses the anaerobic system that doesn’t require oxygen to generate energy. Examples are heavy weight lifting, sprinting, plyometrics or any activity that involves brief, intense bursts. There is some evidence that high-intensity anaerobic exercise triggers the release of endorphin’s like moderate-intensity aerobics does, but anaerobic exercise doesn’t seem to have the same mood-boosting effects. On the other hand, these studies were only looking at short-term benefits. Most people get a boost in self-esteem when they do weight-training long enough to see results. Strength-training is one of the best ways to change the shape of your body and become stronger. This can improve self-esteem.
The Bottom Line?
Aerobic exercise has more mood-enhancing benefits in the short-term than anaerobic exercise, but longer term the changes you get from strength-training can help boost self-esteem by changing body composition. One factor most studies fail to consider is whether a person actually enjoys the exercise. If you hate to run, you’re probably not going to do it long enough to get the endorphin release and a mental health boost. The key is to both strength train and do aerobic exercise, but choose an activity you enjoy for best results.
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JAHSP. Vol. 7, No. 2.