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How Exercise Benefits Mental Health

How Exercise Benefits Mental Health

In the whirlwind of our daily routines, finding time for ourselves – let alone for exercise – can often feel like an overwhelming challenge. Yet, the importance of incorporating physical activity into our routine extends far beyond the realm of physical health, reaching into the core of our mental and emotional health. Mental health is defined by the World Health Organization as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes their own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” A mental disorder is characterized by a combination of abnormal thoughts, perceptions, emotions, behavior and relationships with others and can include depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia or substance use disorder.

Mental health is not the absence of mental disorders, and likewise living with a mental disorder does not exclude one from having good mental health. In light of growing awareness surrounding mental health concerns globally, the search for effective interventions has never been more critical. Researchers have explored the benefits of exercise on mental health and found that both structured and unstructured physical activity has positive benefits on mental health.

Physical Activity and Mental Health

While regular exercise and physical activity is commonly known to improve physical health, there are also several benefits of engaging in exercise and physical activity for mental and emotional health and well-being. In fact, regular, habitual physical activity can reduce long-term feelings of anxiety, reduce daytime sleepiness, increase sleep quality/improve deep sleep, reduce risk for development of depression in children and adults, improve symptoms of depression in children and adults and improve cognition. The positive benefits of physical activity are truly life changing.

Psychological and Physiological Mechanisms

Participation in regular exercise results in physiological changes and adaptations in the human body. To understand exactly how exercise improves health, we can look at both psychological and physiological mechanisms. While the exact mechanisms are still being explored, scientists have several theories and hypotheses about how exercise improves mental health.

Participation in exercise can improve the function of something known as the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. These functional improvements of the HPA axis can lead to a reduction in cortisol levels, which can restore the proper balance of certain hormones such as leptin and ghrelin (hormones that control appetite and hunger) and reduce stress – one source of certain mental health conditions. This is not necessarily perceived stress (i.e. finding a particular situation stressful) but also physiological stress, meaning your body is working overtime to stay functional at a homeostatic (baseline) level. When your body is functioning optimally, it can improve mental health.

Specific Mental Health Conditions

Recently, a study was published to examine the research on the effects of exercise on depression. The authors concluded that exercise is an effective treatment for depression, with walking or jogging, yoga and strength training more effective than other types of exercise, particularly when performed at a more vigorous intensity. Consistent physical activity may also improve sleep quality significantly, leading to less feelings of anxiety, more energy and a better mood throughout the day.

The Importance of Adapting and Incorporating Physical Activity

Several professional organizations including the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization recommend the adoption of physical activity among all people, including those with chronic disease, comorbidities and other conditions. The recommendations suggest people participate in physical activity that is appropriate for them and can include various ‘types’ of physical activity such as walking, running, yoga and more. A key piece to adapting the behavior of physical activity is to find activities that are enjoyable, so this can (and probably will) look different for everyone depending on their preferences and abilities.

The physical activity recommendation for adults is to accumulate a minimum of 150-300 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity and at least two days of muscle-strengthening activities weekly. For children, 60 minutes of activity is recommended daily with aerobic, muscle-strengthening and bone-strengthening activities included at least three days per week. Studies examining the impact of physical activity on mental health suggest that bouts even as short as 10 minutes can be beneficial to boost mood, lending to the idea that something is always better than nothing.

Psychosocial Health Benefits

Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression and negative moods and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function. Exercise has also been found to alleviate symptoms such as low self-esteem and social withdrawal. The social aspect of exercise and physical activity in a group setting can contribute to positive feelings of social well-being. This was demonstrated in a 2018 study which concluded that there is consistent evidence that participation in a team sport is associated with improved social and psychological health. Likewise, the community aspect of being part of a gym can provide similar benefits to team sports in building confidence and self-esteem.


While exercise is not always an appropriate substitute for proper mental health treatment, regular participation in exercise and physical activity appears to have several positive benefits and limited risks for mental health. A physically active lifestyle including structured exercise should be part of an overall health and wellness routine. In addition to helping with feelings of depression and anxiety, it can be a low-risk, valuable tool to help with stress management and overall well-being as well as combat symptoms of other various mental health conditions. So, whether you’re lacing up for a morning jog, rolling out your yoga mat or gearing up for a session at Orangetheory Fitness, remember: each step, each stretch, each sweat-drenched workout is a step towards not just a healthier body, but a healthier mind.


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