The Connection Between Fitness and Mental Health


A solid fitness routine can and will do amazing things for your body. Even in taking a scroll through fitness posts on social media, you can learn about how having more muscle increases metabolic rate, or how cardiovascular activity improves circulation or the benefits of having a daily mobility practice. While these physical changes can be exciting and motivating, often they are not the main reason one continues to keep fitness in the daily routine. 

While someone may begin an exercise routine to improve health or train for an event, many continue to take part in physical activity even after the physical goal is reached. This is partially due to enjoying the health benefits of exercise, such as improved circulation, increased energy, and better sleep. However, it can also be attributed to the positive effects of exercise on mood, self-confidence, and on stress-reduction. Some even equate the feeling to taking a mood-boosting medication. As Dr. Roger Butler, the former director of the National Institute on Aging, once said, “If exercise could be packaged in a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation.”

In the United States, taking care of one’s headspace has become a prominent part of national discussion in recent years. According to the CDC, over 50% of Americans will experience a mental illness or disorder at some point during their lifetime, with 1 in 5 Americans experiencing a mental illness or disorder in any given year. At the height of the pandemic, one study found that 63% of young adults were experiencing symptoms of depression and/or anxiety. While that number appears to have dropped over the past year, young adults aged 12-25 still have the highest overall rates of depression. With women being nearly twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with depression, the need for strategies and self-care routines that support not just healthy bodies, but healthy minds, is key. 

At Skyterra Young Adult, guests learn and practice many different strategies to support their physical and mental well-being. There is a reason movement is used to start the day, five days a week. Guests begin their mornings with intentional mobility and breathing, followed by a strength, cardiovascular, or mixed-modality workout.

Therapists note shifts in mood, alertness, and self-efficacy in guests when meeting with them post-workout as compared to a non-workout or skipped-workout day. Guests notice in themselves that they feel more awake and focused after movement and that they are more comfortable and confident in themselves and with their peers. While some may initially be drawn to exercise for the physical benefits, almost all guests discover that the mental benefits are what keep them coming back for more. Even when it might not be their favorite workout, they know that the feeling after makes it worth it!

So, what does fitness specifically do to build and maintain the health of your mind? We’ve highlighted three specific ways that incorporating fitness into your week can improve your mental health. 

1. Fitness Improves Mental Health by Bettering your Mood

Exercise has been shown to improve overall mood, as well as alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. The exact mechanism or link between exercise and improved mood is still being dissected and studied. There are, however, a few known processes that happen in the brain and body that appear to contribute to improved mood and reduced depression and/or anxiety. 

Exercise increases norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in the body’s fight or flight response. While this temporary increase is a form of stress on the body, elevating levels of norepinephrine for a short period of time (such as during exercise) allows for greater relaxation of the body afterward and a boost in mood. Additionally, those with depression, anxiety and/or ADHD typically have low levels of norepinephrine, and may benefit from activities that specifically elevate it.

When exercising, the body also releases endorphins. Endorphins are chemicals in the brain that reduce the perception of pain. Additionally, they trigger positive feelings in the body, similar to the effect of morphine. While this was previously thought to be the cause of the ‘runner’s high,’ or that positive, float-in-the-clouds one may experience post-workout, it has more recently been discovered that the release of endocannabinoids, or a class of chemicals in the brain that the drug cannabis imitates, are actually responsible for this sensation. And yes, exercise increases the presence of endocannabinoids in the body, too. 

Exercise also increases the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine in the brain. Dopamine, or the ‘happy hormone,’ is activated when doing something you enjoy. In addition to being released during exercise, A consistent exercise regimen can change the very structure of the brain: increasing dopamine in the brain as well as dopamine receptors.  Serotonin is responsible for stabilizing mood. Together with norepinephrine, serotonin can help to increase energy and alertness while also fending off depressive episodes. 

At Skyterra Young Adult, guests often notice this shift in mood pre- and post-workout, noting how they feel more positive about the day and about themselves. Visually, our fitness specialist notices how the whole demeanor in the room shifts as guests move through a workout. When they arrive, guests are often quiet, straight-faced, or tired-looking even. When the workout concludes, they are often smiling, talking amongst themselves, and appear more relaxed as they celebrate their accomplishments. Once they’ve had a few weeks to settle into this routine, guests pick up on this consistent mood shift, and work with our fitness specialist to develop a plan that builds mood-boosting movement that they enjoy into their back-home weekly schedule.

2. Fitness Improves Mental Health by Allowing you to Build Confidence in Yourself

Any type of movement in the gym space can be a positive challenge for our guests. Perhaps that challenge is picking up and carrying a heavy sandbag, running at a new speed on the treadmill, or reaching a new weight goal on a lift. Or maybe, it’s simply waking up in the morning and actually getting to the scheduled fitness session, a goal for a recent guest! While reaching any of these ‘wins’ is exciting and beneficial to boosting mood and improving health, it also proves time and time again to our guests that they can be successful. When guests continue to have these moments of accomplishment in class, their confidence in themselves and their bodies grows. 

Guests at Skyterra Young Adult enroll with a variety of opinions and ability levels concerning fitness. Some guests come from collegiate athlete backgrounds, while others have never before spent significant time in a gym. No matter their background, Skyterra’s fitness programming is designed so that all guests can build their confidence when it comes to movement.

Without mirrors or typical “gym-timidation”, Skyterra guests have the space to connect their effort to movement in a nurturing and supportive environment.  Many guests have had experiences with sports, social media or other competitive environments where they’ve been conditioned to compare their efforts and/or bodies to those of others. At Skyterra, guests are instead guided to shift their focus back to themselves and their own progress through weekly progress tracking. 

Each new milestone a guest reaches is celebrated by all of our guests, building confidence in each individual. Through continued coaching and support during guided strength and cardiovascular workouts, guests see how small progress over time leads to big improvements over the course of weeks or months. When guests are able to witness these weekly and monthly gains, their confidence in their bodies and themselves continue to grow. 

3. Fitness Improves Mental Health by Reducing Your Stress

A healthy dose of exercise can lower levels of overall stress. As previously discussed, exercise increases levels of norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, and endocannabinoids; leading to an overall feeling of well-being.  While these chemicals increase, exercise can also lower levels of cortisol and adrenaline, the main stress hormones in the body. In addition, exercise can improve sleep, which is often disrupted in people with higher levels of stress. 

Stress drops as self-confidence increases. As guests experience success and find confidence in the gym, that spills over into tackling challenging self-growth opportunities during their stay. This helps build up our guests, helping them tackle goals they may have avoided previously. As they continue to increase their self-efficacy, there is less stress in trying new things or experiences because failure isn’t their first thought anymore. 

It is important to note that exercise is itself a form of stress. Exercise in excess can increase levels of stress on the body. Guests at Skyterra Young Adult learn strategies to balance their activity levels with adequate rest and recovery so that they can continue to tap into the positive effects of exercise during their stay and beyond. 

As a therapeutic wellness program, Skyterra Young Adult offers guests the opportunity to challenge thoughts and behaviors that stand in the way of leading a happier and healthier life. While this process is extremely rewarding, it’s not always pleasant or comfortable. Guests have tough conversations with themselves and their families through individual, group and family therapy sessions. Guests may use movement as a strategy to help manage the stress they feel leading up to or after these sessions. Some guests specifically request to schedule private fitness sessions before or after therapy to reap the stress-reducing benefits of movement. Our therapists are often able to tell if a guest has engaged in intentional movement prior to a session based on their presentation and perceived level of stress.

Are you ready to conquer executive function challenges?

Fill out our form to download our free “Guide to Overcoming Executive Function Challenges” with strategies and resources tailored to young adults.

Unlock your potential today!

More to explore