The Benefits of Exercise on Mental Health

It’s been well-established that exercise helps with physical health and fitness but it’s beneficial for our mental health too! In our current day and age, we are seeing a significant increase in metabolic conditions and obesity, as well as mental health issues. Often these conditions both physical and mental, are related to sedentary behavior and medication side effects. In a time when doctors are quick to provide medication to treat the previously mentioned conditions, a physical exercise is an often-overlooked form of treatment.


Cardiovascular or aerobic exercise has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression. This form of exercise includes running, swimming, biking, and even walking and dancing! Although we cannot say exactly why exercise helps with anxiety and depression, a few theories have been proposed. One theory links exercise and improved mental health to increases self-efficacy with exercise and increased social interaction. Another theory is that blood circulation increases to the brain with exercise, which influences hormone controls that are located in the brain that influence our stress response. Key players include the limbic system and hippocampus which influence mood and motivation and the amygdala which plays a role in stress response. Furthermore, changes in neural growth and activity, reduced inflammation, and endorphin releases are seen with exercise that promotes feelings of calm and overall improvements in mood and wellbeing.


Those with anxiety find benefits with exercise as it can serve as a distraction. The added focus of how you’re feeling with exercise and being engaged in the movement (versus zoning out) can promote stress relief and can take your mind off of your constant daily worries.


Other studies have found that exercise can help improve mental health by increasing self-esteem and improving cognitive functioning. Indirect effects of exercise on mental health include improved sleep quality, increased energy and endurance, reduced fatigue, and improved weight control. Weight control is especially important in this population, as oftentimes medications prescribed for managing mental health conditions have negative effects on body weight and can lead to weight gain and poorer body compositions.


Even those who aren’t experiencing a mental health problem can still reap the benefits of exercise on mood! Your memory and brain functioning can benefit from exercise. Endorphins not only make you feel good, but they also can improve your concentration and memory. Exercise has a positive effect on cell growth and pathway functioning in the brain that can improve mental focus and reduce the risk of mental decline with aging.


As mentioned above, exercise can help you sleep! Exercise reduces tension in your body and if you exercise outdoors, exposure to natural light helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle. If you like to exercise at night, choose lower-intensity activities like yoga to promote calmness and allow you to unwind.


Exercise has been shown to improve individuals’ ability to deal with stressful situations.  Exercise can provide a healthy outlet for coping, versus turning to negative behaviors such as drinking and binge eating. Evidence shows that individuals experience improvements with self-efficacy and are better equipped to manage stressors when they exercise on a consistent basis. Furthermore, the overall impact of stress is reduced for those who exercise regularly.


What should I do?

Good news! You don’t have to spend hours in the gym! One Harvard study showed that running once a day for just 15 minutes of walking for 60 minutes can reduce the risk of major depression by 26%.

Make a plan- research shows that coming up with an exercise schedule or routine can reduce the chance of relapse. Write out a plan and stick to it!

You don’t have to redline to get results! Research shows that a moderate exercise intensity will provide you the benefits mentioned above. Pick an exercise and find a pace where you’re breathing heavier than you would at rest, but you’re not out of breath. For example, if you’re jogging with a friend you should be able to chat with them briefly as you jog, but you shouldn’t be moving slow enough to be able to sing.


Kelly Wild (@kellywild8) is a licensed Doctor of Physical Therapy. She also is a National level Olympic Weightlifter and former 3 time CrossFit Games athlete. Kelly also played Division I ice hockey at Ohio State University. Kelly believes that health care should be proactive, not reactive. This mantra has inspired Kelly to publish a number of online fitness protocols at that anyone can use to reduce injury risk and improve strength in order to continue to pursue all of your athletic and fitness goals!