The Impact of Exercise on Your Mental Health

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Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free ...Read More

Exercise’s Impact on Mental Health

Engaging in physical activity is more than just a way to improve physical fitness; it’s a key strategy for enhancing mental well-being. Exercise has been shown to effectively mitigate symptoms of common mental health issues:

  • Depression: Regular physical activity can significantly reduce symptoms of depression. It stimulates changes in the brain that promote feelings of calm and well-being, and releases mood-lifting endorphins.
  • Anxiety: Exercise acts as a powerful anti-anxiety treatment. It relieves tension and stress, boosts both physical and mental energy, and enhances overall well-being through the release of endorphins.
  • Stress: Physical activity is an effective tool for managing stress. It helps in releasing endorphins, relaxing the muscles, and reducing tension in the body.

Exercise not only provides a quick mood boost but also contributes to long-term improvements in mental health.


The transformative power of exercise extends far beyond the realm of physical health, offering an immediate emotional uplift and notable stress reduction. Engaging in physical activity triggers a cascade of biochemical changes, such as the release of endorphins, often referred to as the body’s natural mood elevators. This immediate effect is just the tip of the iceberg. Over time, regular exercise has been shown to provide cognitive enhancements and play a pivotal role in managing symptoms of various mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, ADHD, and PTSD.

Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

Exercise offers preventative and therapeutic psychological benefits. It can reduce the risk of depression and chronic pain, as well as neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Depression, anxiety, eating addictive disorders and body dysmorphic disorders are all responsive to exercise as an adjunct to treatment. Even some symptoms of schizophrenia can improve with exercise.

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Depression is the most studied mental health disorder in relation to exercise, but new studies are finding similar psychological benefits of exercise in the treatment of anxiety.In fact, in one study exercise was generally comparable to antidepressants for patients with major depressive disorder, while participants in a two-week exercise program showed significant improvements in anxiety sensitivity.

Exercise as a Mental Health Intervention

All told there are exercise has been seen to have be benefticial for those with:

  • Depression: Regular exercise has shown remarkable efficacy in reducing symptoms of depression.
  • Anxiety: Physical activity acts as a natural treatment, helping to ease anxiety levels.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Exercise, especially forms involving mindfulness, can aid in managing PTSD symptoms.
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Regular physical activity improves concentration and mood.
  • Stress: Exercise helps in breaking the stress cycle, releasing tension in the body.
  • Other conditions like eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorders have also shown responsiveness to exercise.

Exercise is increasingly recognized as a complement to traditional treatments like psychotherapy and medication. For instance, studies indicate that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants for mild to moderate depression, but without the side-effects.

In conditions like anxiety and ADHD, exercise can enhance the efficacy of medications and therapy by improving overall mood and concentration.

The integration of exercise into treatment plans is seen not just as an alternative, but as a synergistic approach that enhances the overall therapeutic process.

There’s growing evidence that regular exercise can play a significant role in preventing the onset of mental health disorders. By maintaining regular physical activity, individuals may lower their risk of developing conditions such as depression and anxiety.

How does exercise affect the brain?

Exercise’s impact on mental health is rooted in its influence on the brain’s chemistry and structure. Two key neurotransmitters, serotonin and endorphins, play a crucial role:

  • Serotonin: Often targeted by antidepressants, serotonin levels are positively affected by exercise. Serotonin helps regulate mood, appetite, and sleep, and its increased production during physical activity can enhance mood and impart a sense of calm.
  • Endorphins: These are natural mood lifters produced by the brain in response to physical activity. They are responsible for the ‘runner’s high,’ a feeling of euphoria and decreased perception of pain, contributing to an improved overall mood.

Beyond neurotransmitters, exercise contributes to brain health through:

  • Neuroplasticity: Regular physical activity can improve the brain’s ability to adapt and grow, even in adulthood. This neuroplasticity is essential for learning and memory, and can also aid in recovery from mental health issues.
  • Cerebral blood flow and neurogenesis: Exercise augments blood flow to the brain, which is vital for cognitive function and overall brain health. It also fosters neurogenesis – the growth of new neurons, particularly in the hippocampus, an area critical for memory and learning.

Tailoring Your Exercise Routine for Mental Health

Embarking on an exercise journey for mental health requires a thoughtful approach, blending self-awareness with achievable goals. The initial step involves understanding your current mental and physical state, possibly consulting with a healthcare professional if you have pre-existing conditions. Setting realistic and specific goals is crucial. For example, if stress reduction is your objective, incorporate relaxation-focused exercises like yoga or tai chi.

To maintain motivation, focus on setting small, achievable targets. This helps in building a sense of accomplishment and avoids the sense of being overwhelmed. A consistent routine is essential, even if it means engaging in shorter sessions. Introducing variety in your exercise routine can prevent monotony and sustain interest.

Overcoming mental health hurdles to exercise involves recognizing and challenging negative thoughts about physical activity. It’s beneficial to remember that some exercise is always better than none. Finding a support system, such as a workout group or a buddy, can also help in staying motivated and accountable. On days when mental health challenges are more pronounced, a more flexible approach to exercise, choosing gentler activities, can be helpful.

Optimal Exercise Types for Mental Health

Different types of exercises offer unique benefits for mental health. Aerobic exercises like jogging, cycling, or swimming are excellent for boosting mood and alleviating symptoms of anxiety and depression. Resistance training, including weight lifting, can enhance self-esteem and cognitive function.

Mind-body exercises like yoga and tai chi provide dual benefits of physical activity and mindfulness, aiding in stress reduction and mental clarity. The frequency and duration of exercise should align with general health guidelines, recommending at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity weekly, coupled with muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days.

For those with time constraints or varying motivation levels, ‘exercise snacking’ offers a practical solution. This involves engaging in short bouts of physical activity throughout the day. Quick walks, brief yoga sessions, or short home workouts can be integrated into a busy schedule, ensuring regular physical activity without the commitment of lengthy exercise sessions. This approach aligns well with modern lifestyles and can effectively contribute to mental health maintenance.

By adopting these strategies, you can craft an exercise routine that not only supports physical well-being but also plays a significant role in your mental health and overall quality of life.

Keep Reading By Author Christy Matta, M.A.
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