How Exercise Can Boost Mental Health in Young Adults

How Exercise Can Boost Mental Health in Young Adults

It will take many years to truly assess the global health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the primary concern has been around the direct risk to physical health, data is already emerging that suggests there has been a significant toll to mental and emotional health as well.

The ominous fear, isolation and overall tension experienced by many has impacted every age demographic. A group of particular concern is young adults between the ages of 18 and 24. A recent survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control found that 75% of the 5,470 young adults surveyed had one or more adverse mental or behavioral health symptoms.

Mental health agencies and advocates around the world continue to investigate effective support strategies for young adults and other vulnerable populations. Experts agree that seeking the help of a licensed mental health professional is critical step in overcoming these challenges.

In addition to professional intervention, specific, daily health-related habits have been found to aid in improving aspects of mental health such as mood, self-esteem and response to stress. Exercise has been shown to be particularly effective.  

The physical benefits of exercise are well known, and research points to a growing list of physiological, neurological and even psychological benefits associated with mental health. As a health and exercise professional, I have seen these benefits firsthand, particularly with young adults.

Below are some of the ways regular exercise has been found to positively impact mood, stress response and overall mental health.

Vigorous exercise creates immediate changes in “feel good” neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, positively impacting how you feel, think and act. Norepinephrine, a hormone and a neurotransmitter that increases in concentration during exercise, can protect your brain from the negative impacts of stress. Exercise also promotes an increase in endogenous opioids that improve mood and a sense of well- being. These “endorphins” are one of the factors behind the “runner’s high.”

Even though it makes us feel great, exercise is recognized by the human brain and body as physiological stress. Increasing your heart rate and challenging nearly every system in your body is a far cry from its preferred state of homeostasis. Researchers have discovered, however, that this intentional stress created by voluntary exercise can suppress the sympathetic nervous system’s response to future stressful events.

The human response to stress involves a relationship between the highly evolved and logical prefrontal cortex and the more primitive, reactive amygdala. It appears that both acute and regular exercise help to dampen the response of the amygdala, allowing the more logical prefrontal cortex to run the show.

In addition to the positive physiological and neurological benefits, regular exercise is associated with improved self-esteem. Additionally, a more positive outlook combined with improved body perception and overall physical competence results in young adults feeling more adept and confident.

For young adults to reap the mental health benefits of exercise, it’s important that they participate in a way that is safe, effective and enjoyable. Although mental health benefits have been observed with various frequencies and intensities of exercise participation, current industry guidelines encourage healthy adults ages 18 to 65 to participate in moderate-intensity exercise (64-76% of heart rate max) for 30-60 minutes per day, on at least three days per week, or vigorous intensity aerobic exercise (77-95% of heart rate max) for 20-60 minutes per day, on at least three days per week. Performing resistance training at least two days per week is also recommended.

In 20 years of helping people of all ages make exercise part of their life, I’ve found the following strategies are helpful in creating a fun and engaging exercise environment so young adults wantto participate.

In addition, this age demographic may be in the process of pursuing major life milestones such as finding a career, selecting a mate, starting a family, etc. If they focus only on the long-term benefits of exercise, it’s easy to deprioritize this highly beneficial habit while they deal with the major decisions in front of them.

When individuals grow to value exercise as something that can immediately improve their mood, outlook and decision-making abilities, it becomes a relevant tool within the context of their life.

It should be noted that exercise alone is not a “cure,” and experts recommend young adults seek professional intervention if they have mental health concerns. However, promoting healthy lifestyle habits like exercise may offer powerful support on the road to improving the mental health of young adults.

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