How Exercise Can Affect Your Mental Health

Medically reviewed by: Matteo Bugatti, PhD
Monday, February 14 2022

When you’re stressed and cranky, nothing beats a good workout. Many studies have shown that people feel better and are healthier when they’re active. But exercise – defined as planned physical activity meant to improve physical fitness – isn’t just a fix for the occasional bad mood.

There’s overwhelming evidence that exercise can improve symptoms and prevent the development of a wide range of mental health conditions. Keep reading to learn how adding exercise to your routine can improve your own mental health.

Exercise is more than endorphins

Regular exercise keeps your body in shape and may do the same for your brain.

Exercise has been linked to better sleep and increased energy levels. In addition to these benefits, research shows that exercising can reduce feelings of anxiety and depression, improve self-esteem and cognitive function, and create an opportunity for social engagement.  

The bonus is that exercise also helps prevent heart disease, diabetes, and obesity – conditions that are twice as common in people with mental health conditions.

How exercise works 

Experts don’t know all the mechanisms that make exercise such a powerful protector of brain health. However, we do know that exercise:

  • Boosts your level of neurotransmitters — the chemical messengers in your body that send signals from cells to cells — so you’re happier, get more done, and think more clearly. 
  • Reverses the damage caused by conditions such as depression.
  • Sends more blood to your brain, which may help combat depression. 
  • Triggers the release of endorphins – the chemicals that relieve pain and make you feel good in general.

The physical-mental health connection

Research shows that the more healthy lifestyle choices you can make — like exercising regularly — the more likely you are to experience a higher life satisfaction and lower psychological distress. So if you’re already feeling pretty good, exercise can make you feel even better.

If you are someone who has a physical health condition, it is important to acknowledge the connection between your mental and physical health and pay close attention to both. 

Research also shows that regular exercise can positively affect many mental health conditions. For example, exercise can help treat depression from kids to older adults. Doctors might even recommend it along with standard treatments like therapy and medications, leading to better outcomes. 

Starting your exercise routine

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends either:

  • At least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, like fast walking or riding a bike on level ground.
  • 75 minutes a week of vigorous activity like running, biking uphill, swimming laps, or playing basketball. 
  • Plus, weight training twice a week.

This may sound like a lot, especially if you haven’t exercised for a long time. But one way to start is with really small steps, like these: 

  • Set goals you can meet – even if it’s a few minutes every day – and go from there
  • Find a sport or physical activity you enjoy so it can be something you look forward to
  • Keep it social! Find physical activities you can engage in with friends and family

Exercise is a powerful way to improve your physical and mental health. It can help you gain confidence and a sense of control and purpose in your life. Talk to your doctor or therapist about how exercise can improve your overall wellness and how you can make it part of your daily routine.


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