Mental Fitness Benefits

Benefits of Exercise on Mental Health

What is Mental Health?

Mental health is generally defined as one’s social, emotional and psychological well-being. It affects the way we think, feel and react and can often influence how we cope with stressful situations, making decisions or relating to others (14). A healthy mental state does not mean being happy all the time. Even people with considerably strong mental health experience moments of sadness, despair, or confusion. Unfortunately, life is not perfect. Therefore, it is important to develop healthy methods of coping or responding to important decisions or difficult situations (14).

Mental health is measured on a spectrum, making it difficult to define a level of “normality”. We all are so different from one another; therefore, it is important to develop a healthy method of maintaining mental health that works for YOU. If you feel concerned about your mental health state, it is best to consult a doctor or physician. However, this article will present a few methods which may be used for coping with anxiety, stress, depression, etc. aside from medications.

The Department of Health [in the UK] recommends that adults get 2.5 hours of moderate intensity physical activity every week- that’s equivalent to 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. You may be thinking, “I thought this article was about mental health, not physical activity!”… not so fast! Research has proven over and over that physical activity and exercise can have a tremendous impact on mental health and well-being. Numerous studies have shown the positive effects of exercise on depression, anxiety, postpartum depression, sleep quality, memory retention, mental alertness and increased energy (1-15). Unlike medication, exercising can be of little to no cost and you can have as much of it as you like!


Meet the “Endorphins”

Women smiling at the gymOne of the greatest benefits that accompanies physical activity is the body’s increase in “endorphins”. Endorphins are the hormone that make us feel happy! They are released by the central nervous system [brain and spinal cord] and the pituitary gland when we engage in activities such as exercise, laughter, sex, listening to music or even eating chocolate. Endorphins are sometimes referred to as the bodies “natural pain killers”. Upon their release, they are received by the same specialized receptors in the brain that interact with pain killers- like morphine. In fact, the name “endorphin” is derived from the words endogenous morphine, or internal morphine. This interaction results in a decreased perception of pain and an increased perceived pleasure response. (3)

You may have heard of the term “runner’s high”. This phrase is based on the rush of endorphins that come after a long run. The feeling of euphoria accompanying this run is the result of a large release of endorphins from the central nervous system. This can also lead to feelings of relaxation, calmness and increased optimism. It is important to note that not every run will result in the feeling of a “runner’s high”- so don’t feel discouraged if this isn’t something you experience after a tough run. Even minimal exercise can produce a significant endorphin release for someone who is just beginning to exercise. Rest assured, you do not have to become an avid runner to benefit from endorphin release post-exercise (6).

In 2017, a study was conducted, measuring the effects of endorphin release after aerobic exercise and HIIT Training (high intensity interval training) comparative to a state of rest. While the endorphin responses were elevated during the aerobic exercise, the level of endorphins also showed significant results for mediating pain responses after HIIT training. This suggests that shorter, more intense bouts of exercise can be just as effective, with respect to endorphin release, as a long-endurance run (12). Additionally, with studies showing that even laughter can trigger the release of endorphins (7), this should encourage you to get out and just do what you love. You will know when you feel that rush of endorphins. However, you can’t know what works best for you unless you get out there and give it a chance!


How Mental And Emotional Health Can Be Improved Through Exercise

Woman running in forestExercise not only encourages an optimistic outlook on life because of endorphins, but it also has been known to improve mental focus, clarity and alertness. Psychological wellbeing has been referred to as the recognition of one’s potential and the personal perception that one is living up to that potential. In 2017, a study performed in Los Angeles, California analyzed the effects of workplace wellness programs [including cardiovascular conditioning 3x per week] and their influence on workplace productivity. A series of employees were asked to complete a perceived-stress scale following their participation in a structured workplace wellness program. As expected, the results showed notable improvement in the participating employees’ mental clarity and psychological wellbeing both in and outside of the workplace after the 12-week program (4). 

With increased energy, individuals are often more productive after engaging in physical activity or completing a workout. Even a simple walk during your work day may allow you to return to work with a clearer perspective and renewed focus.


Improved Cognitive Function

With so many benefits already mentioned, you are hopefully feeling ready to create some space in your day for activities that will benefit a calmer, more focused, and happier YOU. However, if you still are not convinced, here are a few more benefits to exercise that may encourage you to consider incorporating exercise into your daily routine. Research shows that improved cognitive function and sharper memory can also result from engagement in at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity a day. In 2017, a study compared the effects of physical activity on memory retention and cognitive reaction time. Results confirmed that the group participating in higher levels of physical activity indeed showed a quicker reaction time to the memory tasks they were given after exercise (11)

How often have we sat at our desks and wondered why our minds are “running so slow”? We tend to think that perhaps we need another cup of coffee or maybe we didn’t get enough sleep. While these could be true, the above study shows that prioritizing physical activity can lead to more efficient cognitive processing and better retention of information. So, we must ask ourselves, how much more productive could we be with adequate sleep, a steaming cup of coffee AND a morning of refreshing exercise?


Enriched Quality of Sleep

Quality of sleepPerhaps you are having trouble sleeping at night. Your internal body clock is off and you are not able to fall asleep when you climb into bed. You restlessly toss and turn only to wake up to another long day of work feeling unproductive and more tired than the day before. While exercise can improve cognitive function and memory, it has also been known to improve quality of sleep. A recent research review analyzed a variety of sleep studies, concluding that regular physical activity can have significant impact on sleep quality. From reducing rapid eye movement during sleep to prolonging continuous, uninterrupted sleep, physical activity is thought to be even more effective than psychotherapies in improving sleep patterns (8).

Whether you workout in the morning as the start to your day or incorporate a workout as a stress-reliever at the end of the day, you are expending energy and generating positive fatigue that will require a good night sleep for recovery. This often can be what resets the internal body clock making you tired at the appropriate hours of the evening.


Exercise and Depression

Effects on Depression

Anyone can benefit from the positive effects of exercise, but continued studies are showing proper exercise and consistent physical activity can have significant influence on managing and decreasing symptoms of depression. In 2009, it was recorded that over 340 million people struggle with depression worldwide (1). While it is undoubted that some cases of depression should be treated with medication or therapy, more and more general practitioners are encouraging their patients to consider incorporating physical activity into their daily routines. Even those who have struggled with depression and seen the positive benefits of physical activity testify that it is an underutilized management strategy (13).

DepressionThe National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommends the inclusion of exercise as an initial line of treatment to improve mental health in patients-specifically those struggling with mild to moderate depression. It should be noted, however, that depression can be accompanied by symptoms that make it difficult to appreciate the positive effects of physical activity (13). Yet, studies record that physical inactivity can sometimes lead to depressed thoughts and behavior. This is why it is important to speak with a medical professional about your specific symptoms of depression to understand how they may be directly, or indirectly, affecting you (1).


Exercise and Anxiety

Effects on Anxiety

As with depression, exercise can have significant impact on coping with anxiety disorders. Whether you are hoping to get off medication or perhaps you would like to supplement medication with a healthier lifestyle approach, exercise can be an excellent coping strategy to manage stress and anxiety.

Both physiological and mental changes occur during exercise and these may contribute to the maintenance of anxiety attacks and other challenges that accompany anxiety disorders.

Some forms of treatment for anxiety have been known to mimic the physiological responses that the body experiences during an anxiety attack- shortness of breath, increased heartrate, sweating, etc. This recreation of physiological responses is meant to do one of two things: 1) Create physiological adaptions so that the mind and body are less affected when these physiological responses reoccur or 2) Formulate a realization that these physiological experiences are discomforting, but not as overwhelmingly negative as they tend to seem in an episode of extreme anxiety (2).

While there are a variety of treatments that can generate these physiological responses [being frightened or presented with an unexpected external stress], exercise is an excellent way to mimic these physiological reactions naturally. If you increase intensity in exercise, you elevate your heartrate leading to increased rate of breathing. If you reduce your intensity and come back to rest, you decrease these symptoms and return to a “normal” state. The benefit of exercise is that these responses are controllable. By training the mind to adapt to these symptoms through natural methods, you can start to develop habits of coping to be used when you feel anxious.

Deep breathing is one example of a coping strategy associated with anxiety. If you were to take off sprinting down the road, or perhaps walk on an inclined treadmill for several minutes you should begin to feel your heart racing—perhaps it feels like is out of control. Anxiety can cause the heartrate to increase in a similar way. If you have not developed a method to cope with this physiological heightening, it can make you feel anxious and uneasy. As you tune into your heart racing, begin to draw deep breaths into your lungs. Maybe even pause at the deepest point of breath to gain control and then slowly release maximum air possible from the lungs before you draw the next breath.

AnxietyOver time, as you practice this technique, you will physically be able to notice the way your heartrate slows down as you breathe deeper and deeper. In the same way this slows your heartrate down with intense exercise, it will also decrease your heart rate in a moment of gripping anxiety. As with anything, it is best to practice this over and over so that you develop strong coping strategies for when you need them the most. Deep breathing slows your physiological responses to anxiety, but there are also positive chemical changes within the brain that accompany exercise as well. As discussed earlier, while endorphins affect optimism and positive mood, they can also give a sense of overcoming accomplishment and perceived self-control. This can be crucial to coping with anxiety as it is often an “out of control” feeling that leads to an anxious state of mind.


Social Benefits of Exercise

Exercise not only presents physical and mental benefits but it presents social benefits as well. Studies show that increased physical activity has significantly improved self-esteem and perceived self-worth in individuals who participate in moderate physical activity. In 2013, a study testing the impacts of physical activity on positive self-esteem in adolescents showed significant results. Adolescents were required to participate in consecutive days of exercise and then were tested on their self-perception with respect to different social situations. Results confirmed that while the different between varying social situations showed no significance, there was an increase in overall perceived self-esteem amongst the group who participated in daily physical activity (15).

Exercise can be a great way to destress and relax after a long day at work. With the potential for improved mental clarity and renewed energy, it is well worth the effort to incorporate physical activity into one’s daily routine. Putting in your ear buds, listening to music, getting your blood pumping and releasing endorphins can do wonders for your mental health before heading into work or coming away from a long day at the office. While many people enjoy working out alone, it may be beneficial for those starting out, or those struggling with consistency, to set up a form of accountability for reaching their goals.


The How-Tos

At this point, we know that physical activity is extremely beneficial for our mental (and physical) wellbeing, but how do we establish consistency and keep ourselves accountable long enough to see the outstanding benefits? Below you will find some tips and tricks on how to get started with incorporating physical activity into your daily routine. Life is busy, so take a deep breath and have patience with yourself. Once you have felt the long-term benefits of exercise, you will find it harder and harder to fall back into your patterns of old, inactive ways.

Do what you LOVE!

If you do not like running, it is likely you will not stick with it. Start with something you enjoy! It can be as simple as taking a walk on the beach, riding a bike or turning on some music and dancing around the house. In the warmer months, perhaps you make it a priority to get up from your desk and take a walk- even if it is just for 15 minutes. If you are just starting out, perhaps you start with mindfully standing up and stretching at some point in your day. Whether it is playing a dancing video game or joining a group class at your local gym, the key is to just get moving! The activities that are not your favorites may seem easier to conquer when you have experienced how great you can feel from getting active.

Be realistic.

If you aren’t in the routine of exercising during your busy schedule, then it is unlikely you will be able to devote an hour of your day to exercise right away. However, don’t let that be the excuse that stops you. Start with 15 minutes. Even 15 minutes can have a positive effect on perceived optimism and mental health (6). After you have experienced the positive benefits of 15 minutes, be proud of yourself for that accomplishment. From there, make a new goal of 20 minutes and so on until you have worked your way up to the recommended amount of daily activity or more. It is not always the destination that matters, you must find beauty in the journey.

Reward yourself**.

  • Listen to music: Create a playlist that you look forward to listening to while you exercise. Only allow yourself to listen to it while you are exercising.
  • Plan a Coffee Date: Choose a destination and reward yourself when you get there. Instead of taking a car or public transport, walk or jog to meet a friend for a cup of coffee or tea.
  • Enjoy the outdoors: Many people feel a sense of happiness simply walking outside into the sunshine on a nice warm day. Go to your favorite park or nearby city and explore. Set up milestones before you go so you can challenge yourself when you get there.

**Avoid the temptation to always reward yourself with food. The act of eating can also trigger endorphin-release in the brain, making you happy. This can establish an unhealthy correlation between food and exercise. We should eat properly to fuel our bodies both before and after exercise, but it is better to steer away from a mentality of just “working out to eat”.

All in all, you must find what works for you! These are just a few suggestions to get you thinking of what might motivate you to continually incorporate physical activity into your day to day routine. Remember to start small and work gradually towards your long-term goals. The first step is to get out there and get moving!



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  2. Asmundson, G. G., Fetzner, M. G., Deboer, L. B., Powers, M. B., Otto, M. W., & Smits, J. J. (2013). Let's get physical: a contemporary review of the anxiolytic effects of exercise for anxiety and its disorders. Depression And Anxiety, 30(4), 362-373. doi:10.1002/da.22043
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  7. Fagan, A. (2017). Bound By Laughter. Psychology Today, 50(5), 20.
  8. Kredlow, M., Capozzoli, M., Hearon, B., Calkins, A., & Otto, M. (2015). The effects of physical activity on sleep: a meta-analytic review. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 38(3), 427-449. doi:10.1007/s10865-015-9617-6
  9. MCNEALUS, K. (2018). Let's Talk About STRESS. Exceptional Parent, 48(2), 16-18.


  1. Pritchett, R. V., Daley, A. J., & Jolly, K. (2017). Does aerobic exercise reduce postpartum depressive symptoms? a systematic review and meta-analysis. The British Journal of General Practice: The Journal Of The Royal College Of General Practitioners, 67(663), e684-e691. doi:10.3399/bjgp17X692525
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  1. Saanijoki, T., Tuominen, L., Tuulari, J. J., & Nummenmaa, L. (2017). Opioid release after high-intensity interval training in healthy human subjects. Neuropsychopharmacology, 43(2), 246-254. doi:10.1038/npp.2017.148
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