At some point, you've probably heard someone say that working out is literally therapy for them — and hey, maybe you've even been that person. Most of us can agree that exercising and moving your body has the ability to relieve stress and make you feel empowered in a variety of ways. But when it comes to whether or not working out actually counts as therapy, can the two methods truly compare? The answer isn't a simple one, but luckily, Elite Daily spoke with a couple of experts to get the low-down on why you feel so amazing after a good workout, and whether those good vibes can really compare to an actual therapy session.
According to Dominique Talley, MSW, CPT, a therapist and certified personal trainer, not only is there a "huge body of research showing that physical activity is effective at reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety," but she says she's seen those results herself, and the proof is in the pudding: "I've seen firsthand the dramatic transformations (psychological and physical) that can take place when someone begins to consistently work out, even when that exercise is only moderate," Talley tells Elite Daily.
Talley says there are several reasons why exercise can have such a therapeutic effect on you, and yes, one such reason has a lot to do with those good ol' endorphins.
She tells Elite Daily that your body's release of endorphins — aka those feel-good chemicals in your brain — when you exercise can give you an immediate boost in your mood, plain and simple. And while those endorphins do wear off after a few hours, Talley says, "they provide a sense of relief and accomplishment that can be seriously inspiring and give someone hope that he or she can feel better in the long-term." And that, she says, is a truly powerful thing for some people.
Think about it this way: Those same feelings of relief and accomplishment that you get after you complete a challenging workout can increase your motivation overall, and Talley says this might make you more willing to try additional interventions to benefit your mental health, such as self-care practices like meditation, or even actual therapy sessions.
Another big reason why exercise can be a source of therapy for people is because it provides you with a "concrete victory," Talley tells Elite Daily.
"The ability to challenge oneself physically (whatever that looks like for an individual) boosts one's sense of control and provides a tangible accomplishment to be proud of," the personal trainer explains. In other words, working out is a relatively simple thing to do, at least in the grand scheme of life, where you have stressors and obstacles of all kinds coming at you at every moment. And, as Talley says, mental health issues like depression or anxiety can often feel like "an attack on [your] sense of worth, competency, and ability to direct [your] life." But if you can will yourself to go from never working out, to even just taking a walk around the block a couple times a week, you may start to "feel better about [your] ability to take control of other areas of [your] life, as well," Talley tells Elite Daily.
What's more, once you start exercising regularly, it's a pretty constant, long-term journey, as long as you find ways to help you stick with a workout routine. That momentum can be built upon over time as you continue working toward various goals you set for yourself, and in the process, you're also building momentum in a bigger sense by showing yourself you can do whatever you put your mind (and body) to. If you can manage to hold a plank now for over a minute when you could barely stay in the position for 10 seconds last month, just imagine what else your brain and body are capable of when you really dedicate yourself to improving any skill of any kind.
But, as incredible as exercise can be for your mental health, some experts wonder if working is enough on its own, or if it can really replace actual, one-on-one therapy sessions.
According to Cody Higgs, a licensed professional counselor in Tennessee, a regular workout routine can be an extremely positive intervention for people struggling with mental health issues, but it may not be enough of an intervention in some cases. "If you're looking for a maintenance or preventative coping skill, working out can be great," Higgs tells Elite Daily. "It is generally low risk and doesn't have a huge cost. Plus, you can also gain confidence, improve self-esteem, and develop resilience from exercise."
However, Higgs says there are some cases when someone will need more than just "coping skills" to work through their issues — and that's where exercise simply cannot replace therapy. "Sometimes we're struggling with things that aren't fully addressed by a quick endorphin rush," he explains. "In some cases we may be confused, holding onto traumatic events, or feel like we're not able to function in the way we want. In those cases, it may be best to seek out some assistance from a licensed professional, such as a counselor, psychiatrist, or psychologist."
What's more, if you solely use exercise to address a significant mental health issue, Higgs says, you run the risk of overdoing it and injuring yourself. And what happens if your only coping skill goes away with an injury? Nothing good probably, right?
The bottom line is this: Whether you work out, go to therapy, or do both for the amazing benefits they bring to your mental health, what works best for someone definitely varies from person to person. The best thing you can do is be open-minded to different treatments and approaches, and to heed the advice of trained mental health professionals. In the meantime, a head-clearing run around the block certainly doesn't hurt, especially at the end of an especially long, hard day.