When you signed up for your first Orangetheory class, you probably had a goal in mind. Maybe it was “to feel stronger” or “to get more toned.” But as exercising became a part of your weekly routine, you may have noticed a few other benefits, like improved mood, energy, and focus. If you’re one of nearly 50 million American adults today who are experiencing a mental illness, you might have even found some relief.
These perks aren’t coincidental—working out goes far beyond our physical abilities and appearances to play a major role in mental health. Exercise scientist Summer Sides says heart-rate-based interval training not only makes us feel less stressed throughout our daily lives, but it can also alleviate the symptoms of more serious mental health conditions.
“Studies show that physical activity can be as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy or medications in treating chronic depression or anxiety,” she says. In fact, with just 150 minutes of heart-pumping exercise every week (hint hint: three Orangetheory classes!), you can lower your risk of experiencing depression and anxiety by 20%, according to The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).
Here’s how it works: When you start a treadmill block during an Orangetheory class, your body releases endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin—or “those happy, natural pain killers in our body,” Sides says—which reduce stress and improve your mood.
Dr. Robert Owens, a sports psychologist, says exercise is also helpful for “people who have experienced traumatic events and have elevated hormones like cortisol and adrenaline,” since working out helps the body to regulate these stress responders.
Here are a few tips from Sides and Dr. Owens on how to tap into the mental health benefits of exercising during your Orangetheory workouts:
1. Stay consistent
No matter if your heart rate goes into the blue, green, orange, or red zones, you’ll feel those endorphin releases and that elevated mood as you walk out of your Orangetheory class. But, the effects won’t last for long. “Having one dose of exercise will be temporarily helpful to elevate your mood, but then if you stop exercising, you're going to go back into that negative mood state,” Dr. Owens says. Therefore, Sides suggests taking three to four Orangetheory classes every week for more long-lasting results.
2. Don't overdue it
There can be too much of a good thing, and Dr. Owens warns that overexercising can create an undesired spike in your cortisol levels. Sides likens this experience to drinking too much coffee: “When we're constantly amped up—whether it's by our notifications on our phone, coupled with our high-stress life, coupled with [too much] exercise—you put all that together and we're just in that constant state [like having too much] caffeine.” If you like to work out more than four times a week, Sides says to take the intensity down a couple notches and spend a few of those days in the blue and green zones.
3. Lean on your OTF community
When you are experiencing anxiety or depression, finding the willpower to work out can feel impossible. During those particularly challenging days, remember that getting to the studio is the hardest part, and that when you arrive, you’ll have your Orangetheory community to lean on. In fact, The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association found that people who work out in groups have lower stress and better overall quality of life compared to those who work out on their own.
When life gets tough and it feels like there’s no time or motivation to get into the studio, that’s exactly when your workouts should become a top priority. After all, there are so many MORE LIFE benefits to exercise than what meets the eye.