The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise


Have you been feeling down in the dumps lately? Maybe you’ve been feeling more anxious than usual? We probably have all experienced the high of finishing a workout or going for a walk. This article will dive into how exercise is a powerful tool for increasing our emotional well-being.

What is the link between mental health and exercise?


It’s scientifically proven that exercise improves our mental health. A study in the medical journal, The Lancet Psychiatry looked at surveys taken in 2011, 2013, and 2015 that found a person generally feels 3.4 bad mental health days per month. When they looked at people who included exercise in their daily routine, researchers found that poor mental health days dropped by about 40 percent.


We can’t forget Covid-19 and the effects it may have had on our mental health. We’re sure some of us went a bit stir crazy being stuck in our homes for weeks without a proper end in sight. Kaiser Permanente out of California published a study in November 2021 that showed the more exercise people did during the initial Covid-19 lockdown experienced less depression and anxiety. Exercise was even more effective when that same sample of people took their physical activity outdoors.


Exercise – any exercise you enjoy – boosts mental health. It can help reduce anxiety, depression, negative mood, stress, low self-esteem, and social withdrawal.


How does exercise affect anxiety and depression?

Anxiety and depression often get lumped together, mainly due to their high comorbidity with one another. It also seems that exercise does a great deal to alleviate symptoms of both disorders. Being physically active can also help keep anxiety and depression at bay once you feel better.


So, how does exercise help exactly? Here’s how:

  • Release of Feel-Good Endorphins & Endocannabinoids – Endorphins help block pain and increase the feeling of pleasure, and through exercise, you can improve your endorphin levels. Endocannabinoids are a group of neurotransmitters that are thought to work in tandem with endorphins to create that euphoric feeling after finishing a workout. And while dopamine is not an endorphin, it is a neurotransmitter that deserves an honorable mention. Dopamine regulates heart rate, sleep, mood, attention, motivation, memory, and pain processing, and dopamine is released during physical activity.

  • Relieves Stress – Exercise is an excellent outlet for stress, which helps reduce cortisol and adrenaline levels. Some research found that exercise can also make you more resilient to stress. And being more resilient to all things, especially stress, can improve your overall quality of life.


  • Improved Self-Confidence – Many studies have shown the effects exercise has on body image, and consistent physical activity (which does not necessarily mean that you must go to a gym) improves body image, self-esteem, and confidence.

  • Improved Mood – Depression is notorious for causing low mood, sometimes for long periods, and anxiety can cause you continuous worry and fear. Exercise improves overall mood with decreased negative thoughts and moderate feelings of depression.


  • Encourages Better Memory & Thought-Processing – Research has found that physical activity improves mental clarity, working memory, and the ever-shrinking attention spans. And for those over the age of fifty, exercise has been shown to lower cognitive deterioration.

  • Provides a Healthy Coping Method – Some of us may turn to overeating, oversleeping, or other coping mechanisms. Moving our bodies and diving into a physical activity that excites us will provide us with a healthier coping strategy and will help combat symptoms of anxiety and depression.

  • Better Sleep – Our sleep schedules can get out of sorts thanks to anxiety and depression. Exercise can help improve sleep by tiring us out and reinforcing the circadian rhythm. Our circadian rhythm is our internal body clock, and exercise, especially exercising outdoors, can strengthen it. When your internal body clock is working correctly, it produces melatonin (a hormone that makes us feel tired at the end of the day) and improves our quality and quantity of sleep.


How does exercise affect post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

PTSD arises in people after they have gone through a shocking, dangerous, traumatizing event. They often experience flashbacks, dreams, and thoughts associated with the initial event. Much research has shown how exercise can positive


ly affect PTSD symptoms and work with other treatment approaches.


Exercise has been shown to help desensitize a person to the arousal cues they have around their experience, regulate hormone levels, and lower cortisol and adrenaline.

What exercise modalities are best for improving mental health?



Yoga – Breathing and mediation are the focus of yoga practices. Yoga can help calm our minds and our thoughts, and because of these benefits, it is one of many exercise modalities that improve anxiety and depression. Yoga develops new brain cell connections and improves our cognitive skills. It has been shown to strengthen our memory, attention, thought, and awareness.


Yoga is an excellent complement to traditional forms of mental health treatment. Our moods are elevated when we take part in a yoga practice or class, and through the meditation involved in yoga, we become less reactive to our emotions and feelings.


Pilates – Pilates emphasizes breathing and mindfulness to strengthen the connection between mind and body. The breathing exercises practice can reduce anxiety and panic attacks, restore emotional balance, and offers a reprieve from daily stress. A regular practice of Pilates can improve your concentration, helping you focus on the present moment and improve attention and memory.


Resistance Training – Like all exercise modalities, weight training improves mood by releasing endorphins and helping neurotransmitters like dopamine. Lifting weights has also been found to lower stress and anxiety by reducing cortisol levels in the body.


A key effect resistance training has on mental health is an improved relationship with your body. As we build muscle (and possibly lose some fat), seeing the changes in our body, and learning we are capable of lifting weights we didn’t think possible, our confidence is boosted. Weight training can teach us to trust ourselves and our bodies and improve our self-esteem and confidence.


Running – We have all heard of the infamous runner’s high—it’s what we all strive to experience when we go on a run. This is all because of endorphins, but a runner’s high can be somewhat elusive to most of us. The other benefits of running are improved memory, focus, and elevated mood.



The Takeaway

Mental health has such a massive impact on our lives, and when we are struggling with anxiety, depression, or any other mental disorders that affect the worldwide population. We can boost our endorphins, lower our stress levels, clear our racing thoughts, and improve our mood through regular exercise.


Sources

Basso, J. C., & Suzuki, W. A. (2017). The Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood, Cognition, Neurophysiology, and Neurochemical Pathways: A Review. Brain plasticity (Amsterdam, Netherlands), 2(2), 127–152. https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040


Erickson, K. I., Hillman, C., Stillman, C. M., Ballard, R. M., Bloodgood, B., Conroy, D. E., Macko, R., Marquez, D. X., Petruzzello, S. J., Powell, K. E., & FOR 2018 PHYSICAL ACTIVITY GUIDELINES ADVISORY COMMITTEE* (2019). Physical Activity, Cognition, and Brain Outcomes: A Review of the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 51(6), 1242–1251. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0000000000001936


Hegberg, N. J., Hayes, J. P., & Hayes, S. M. (2019). Exercise Intervention in PTSD: A Narrative Review and Rationale for Implementation. Frontiers in psychiatry, 10, 133. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00133


Tanner MK, Fallon IP, Baratta MV, Greenwood BN. Voluntary exercise enables stress resistance in females. Behav Brain Res. 2019 Sep 2;369:111923. doi: 10.1016/j.bbr.2019.111923. Epub 2019 Apr 24. PMID: 31028765; PMCID: PMC6557443