Updated October 5, 2023 (originally published 8/26/21)
Research has shown that most mental health conditions present by age 25 or earlier, making young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 a particular concern for mental health agencies and advocates around the world, who continue to investigate effective support strategies for young adults and other vulnerable populations. Unfortunately, that same research highlights the fact that, while the initial onset of mental health disorders usually occurs during childhood or adolescence, treatment typically doesn’t begin until years later. Experts agree that seeking the help of a licensed mental health professional is a 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. As you’ll read below, the benefits of exercise on mental health are well-established.
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.
Exercise Increases “Feel Good” Hormones and Neurotransmitters
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 rises 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.”
Exercise Rewires the Stress Response
Even though it makes us feel great, exercise is recognized by the human brain and body as physiological stress, as the increase in heart rate and the challenge to nearly every system in the body is a far cry from its resting 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 prefrontal cortex (the executive functioning and reasoning part of the brain) and the more primitive, reactive amygdala. It appears that both acute and regular exercise help to improve connectivity between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. The improved connectivity between these brain regions is associated with happiness, which may ultimately provide anxiety-reducing effects.
Exercise Improves Self-esteem
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 may result in young adults feeling more adept and confident.
To reap the mental health benefits of exercise, it’s important to 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 64 to participate in moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity (64 to 76% of heart-rate maximum) for 150 to 300 minutes per week, or vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity (77 to 95% of heart-rate maximum) for 75 to 150 minutes per week. Performing muscle-strengthening activities on at least two days per week is also recommended.
How to Make Exercise a “Want to” Instead of a “Have to”
In 20 years of helping people of all ages make exercise part of their lives, I’ve found the following strategies are helpful in creating a fun and engaging exercise environment so that young adults want to participate.
Make it social. Young adults are often in a phase of life where they recognize the importance of expanding their social circles. When this can be done in an exercise setting, the activity becomes more fun and relevant to their lives.
Encourage them to find something they enjoy. As is true for any age, people are more likely to stick with something they enjoy. Encourage young adults to try different activities and find something they enjoy.
Highlight how exercise makes them feel. Weight loss, improved physical performance and other positive “side effects” of regular exercise can take time to realize. However, a single bout of exercise can improve cognitive flexibility (the ability to efficiently switch between different attentional and motor-related goals) and sleep quality, and reduce feelings of anxiety. Encourage young adults to focus on these aspects of an exercise program, in addition to long-term goals.
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 that 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.
To learn more about the role of exercise in mental health, check out this video from Sami Mansfield, founder of Cancer Wellness for Life.
To learn more about how to program and discuss lifestyle medicine variables with your clients, check out this continuing education course: Foundations of Lifestyle Medicine (worth 0.1 ACE CECs). Or, become an ACE Behavior Change Specialist (worth 2.5 ACE CECs) and help clients find their own unique path to more fulfilling lifestyles by implementing SMART goal setting and motivational interviewing strategies.