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How Does Exercise Improve Mental Health? It’s Complicated

Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

We already know from scores of studies that increased physical activity is associated with a decrease in mental health problems. But why? The mechanisms behind this relationship are still a mystery.

That’s why I was pleased to read a study about some rarely considered reasons explaining this correlation in a recent issue of Clinical Psychological Science. The researchers focused on adolescents, but I think we can learn something from their results that pertains to everyone.

In the study, data from over 7,000 adolescents were extracted from the Dutch Health Behavior in School-Aged Children survey. Not only did analysis of the data support the positive association between physical activity and mental health; it also resulted in two themes that may partially explain why this association exists.

The first theme pertains to self-image. More specifically, adolescents involved in physical activity – whether as individuals or as members of a team sport – exhibited a more positive self-image related to their body weight. The theory here is that physical activity improves physical fitness, which in turn makes people feel better about themselves. This either enhances mental health or acts as a buffer against mental health problems.

The second theme pertains to social interaction. In other words, being physically active often involves interacting with others, either on a sports team, in a group exercise class, or simply with a fitness partner. The social interaction involved in physical activity reduces isolation, and in turn improves mental health or protects against mental health risk factors.

I like the researchers’ focus because these themes raise new and important issues regarding the psychological benefits of exercise. But I encourage you to adopt an even broader perspective on why exercise is so fantastic for our mental health.

Physical activity does a lot more for us than help us feel better about our bodies and create social connections with others. Exercise creates biochemical changes in our brains that exert wonderful forces on our psyche. For instance, exercise facilitates the release of endorphins, adrenaline, and neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, all of which are linked to improved mental health and reductions in depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders. Exercise helps us release toxins that otherwise build up in the body and invariably impact the brain’s ability to function. Exercise also raises our body temperature, which has been suggested to produce a calming effect that facilitates relaxation.

Exercise is just about the best coping mechanism I can think of when faced with emotional difficulties. It’s a healthy coping skill (as opposed to reliance on drugs, alcohol, or other unhealthy habits), has long-lasting benefits, and helps reduce our risk for a host of other health issues besides mental health problems.

This is one time when complicated is good – the more complicated the relationship is between exercise and mental health, the more reasons there are to do it.


Monshouwer, K., Ten Have, M., Van Poppel, M., Kemper, H., & Vollebergh, W. (2013). Possible mechanisms explaining the association between physical activity and mental health. Clinical Psychological Science, 1(1), 67-74.

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