Mind Over Matter: 9 Surprising Ways Working Out Is Good for Your Brain

portrait of Alex Mahadevan
Getting into fitness has changed Alex Mahadevan's life in ways he never imagined. Carmen Mandato/ The Penny Hoarder

In 2013, I took a sabbatical from work thanks to crippling anxiety I treated with bad decisions. A lot of them.

Those were some really dark days. I lost friends, and I let down family. My outsized personality even shrank into that of a dead slug. Or something.

Then I found the iron.

I started lifting weights that summer, and since then, my life has changed in ways I never could have imagined at the time. I accepted a challenging job offer (here at The Penny Hoarder!), got married and bought a house.

While support from my friends and family was a huge part of those changes, I attribute the complete turnaround in my mental health — and current state of mind — to getting into fitness.

With a $25-a-month basic gym membership, I’ve managed to cut out many $100 therapy visits and avoid costly prescription drugs in the process, as well.

You don’t even really need a gym.

The self-confidence and resilience I get from working out always bleed into my daily work. Deadlines? Please. Those are nothing compared to the four plates I pulled this morning at the YMCA.

Sure, you’ll look better and live longer with regular exercise, but the mental health benefits are what really shine for me. And what better time than the start of 2018 to get into the habit?

9 Ways Your Mental Health Can Benefit From Regular Exercise

Seventeen years ago, while working in the tech industry, Brian Constantine quit drinking, then introduced fitness into his life bit-by-bit. He caught the exercise bug after watching his friend run a marathon.

portrait of Brian Constantine
Brian Constantine started his fitness routine with dog walks. Carmen Mandato/The Penny Hoarder

“I stood there, and I watched all these different people of all shapes, sizes, age and ability go by in all states of agony and ecstasy pushing themselves to see if there were limits they could take down,” said Constantine, a licensed mental health professional in Pinellas County, Florida.  

Constantine started with one-mile dog walks. One mile turned into three miles. Since then, he’s competed in four Ironmans and several marathons.

“If you could get all the benefits of regular exercise distilled into a pill, it would be a multibillion-dollar seller,” he said. “It would be Viagra all over again.”

In his work as a therapist at Eckerd College and Footprints Beachside Recovery Center, he always prescribes a fitness regime as part of therapy. He shared with us some ways working out can boost your mental health.

1. It Will Help You Confront That Nagging Anxiety

When you work out — and this means any type of exercise that gets your heart rate up for a while — your brain releases a concoction of chemicals that give you all sorts of good vibes.

Research shows that endocannabinoids (yeah, similar to cannabis) produce a calming effect that keeps me chilled out even on the most hectic days. That is, unless I miss a workout.  

It’s also a place of peace for those cursed with the anxiety-brain.

Portrait of Kelly Smith
For Kelly Anne Smith, the gym is her escape. Carmen Mandato/The Penny Hoarder

“I’m someone whose brain functions at 200 miles an hour and it’s exhausting,” said Penny Hoarder junior writer and engagement specialist Kelly Anne Smith. “When I do go to the gym it’s the hour or hour and 15 minutes a day where my brain isn’t going crazy. It’s sort of my escape.”

2. It Can Dig You Out of the Hole Depression Stuck You In

Exercise has a similar effect on depression. While anxiety is my arch-enemy, depression can creep into my life every now and then.

The Penny Hoarder’s quality assurance lead Jordan Piper works out because it helps him escape from negative thoughts, feel good about his progress and get into a social situation. When he misses a weekly workout, it’s noticeable.

“I get withdrawn for friends and family,” he said. “I just feel like sleeping at every chance I get.”

Jordan Piper works out because it makes him feel good. Carmen Mandato/The Penny Hoarder

3. Not Great With People? It Can Help You With Your Social Anxiety

Boot camps, CrossFit and even daily exercise classes at the YMCA can also help you connect with people to tackle social anxiety.

“There’s a sense of community,” said Smith, who admits to struggling with social anxiety as well.

4. It Will Probably Make You Smarter

What comes to mind when you picture your average gym bro? Probably a big dude in an extra medium-sized tank top grunting like a caveman. Probably not too bright, right?

Well, actually, there is some research that shows pumping iron (and any other type of strenuous exercise) can make you smarter.

“Cognitively, there’s evidence of better memory, better problem solving,” Constantine said.

5. Stave off Alzheimer’s, Dementia and Other Degenerative Diseases

See No. 4. The brain cell production that may come from exercise can also dampen the effects of cognitive decline.

This paper concludes that with its low cost, age-appropriate physical activity can delay the effects of diseases like dementia or Alzheimer’s.

6. Better Sleep, Which Means Better Days

When I have a true anxiety attack, I know for sure I won’t be sleeping that night. Even if it happens in the afternoon.

But I have always teetered on the edge of full-blown insomnia, at least until I started lifting a few years go.

I wouldn’t recommend late-night workouts if you have trouble sleeping. But there are links between exercise and getting a good night’s sleep.

7. You’ll Feel More Energized Throughout the Day

Fatigue is one of the biggest triggers for my anxiety. When I’m feeling tired, I also feel unproductive, which anyone with anxiety knows can drive us up a wall.

Getting in my morning workout always gives me a little pep in my step throughout the day. And some research has shown that exercise can treat fatigue. Nice!

8. Tackle That Substance Abuse Problem

Since anxiety and depression are some of the biggest relapse triggers for those in addiction recovery, Constantine said regular exercise is a solid treatment for substance abuse.

9. It Will Give You True Grit

It’s hard to quantify, but Smith and Constantine both pointed out the resilience one gains from regular exercise as a major mental health benefit.

Smith referenced psychologist Angela Duckworth’s book ”Grit: The Power and Passion of Perseverance”, which popularized the fact that grit, which can be acquired by anyone, is a better predictor of success than IQ or any God-given talent.

“It’s just really cool to see the things your body is capable of, but also your mind,” she said.

Personally, I’m a powerlifter. I don’t care what my body looks like, and frankly, I couldn’t care less how much I lift.

But whenever I’m stressed about talking to a difficult source or a particularly pushy public relations person, I just give myself a pep talk: “Hey, you squatted 300 pounds this morning; this dude is lightweight, baby.”

Here’s How to Get Started on Your Fitness Journey

The key to getting into an exercise routine is to just start. Don’t overthink it. And, most importantly, don’t make insane goals you’ll never hit.

“Start really small, well within your comfort zone,” Constantine said. “If you’re going to have a goal, have consistency be your goal.”

That could be a walk around the block every morning.

If you’re looking into box gyms for CrossFit or a boot camp, find a place that’s noncompetitive, Smith said. Both of these options should have modifications in each of their workouts for beginners — and I’ve always found them to have the most encouraging atmosphere for newbies.

Find a cheap gym membership, and use one of their personal trainers or YouTube to research routines. I’ve found the fitness Subreddit to be very helpful and welcoming to new members.

Piper said it’s important to find a gym buddy to keep you accountable and consistent.

“If you get bored with a workout, switch it up,” he said. “Or if you miss a few days and start feeling depressed, get back to the gym.”

Of course, when you’re dealing with serious mental health issues, fitness alone won’t solve all of your problems. But it is an inexpensive start.

Alex Mahadevan is a data journalist at The Penny Hoarder. He likes to pick things up and put them back down.