Can we really improve our mental health by exercising?

We all know that exercise does our body good, but more and more, researchers are finding that it does our mind good, too. Virtually all forms of exercise, from dancing to yoga, can help relieve stress, improve overall health, and increase our sense of well-being.

In addition to the well-established impact on our physical health (reduced cholesterol, improved cardiovascular fitness, weight reduction, decreased risk for a variety of diseases and premature death), researchers have proven that physical exercise has major effects on our mental health including:

  • Improved mood
  • Increased self-confidence
  • Greater sense of relaxation
  • Reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Increased energy and stamina
  • Improved sleep
  • Increased interest in sex
  • Lower stress levels
  • Increased mental alertness and other cognitive functions

How can exercise do all of that?

There are several mechanisms through which exercise is thought to impact our mental health. Researchers have proposed that exercise improves our mood and physiologic reactivity to stress by increasing blood circulation to the brain and influencing the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. These physiological processes are likely mediated by the communication of the HPA axis with parts of the brain that control motivation and mood (the limbic system), generate fear in response to stress (amygdala), and impact memory formation, mood, and motivation (hippocampus). Second, research has shown that physical activity helps increase production of the brain’s “feel good” neurotransmitters (endorphins). Lastly, exercise can distract us from our everyday stressors, increase our feelings of self-efficacy and confidence, and provide an opportunity for us to interact with others, all of which are associated with improved wellbeing.  

How much do I need?

We hear it time and time again: “I don’t have the time/energy/schedule to be able to exercise.” It’s important to know, however, that the physical and mental benefits of exercise are worth every minute and will even increase our productivity.

Although researchers are still working out the details regarding how much and what types of exercise is most helpful, The Department of Health and Human Services recommends getting at least 2.5 hours of moderate aerobic activity (for example, brisk walking or swimming) or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (such as running) per week.  One can also do a combination of moderate and vigorous activities.  For example, we can meet these guidelines by doing one, 45 minute cycling class and one, 30 minute jog per week, or by taking a quick 30 minute walk five days per week.

Here are some tips to get you started:

  1. Start slow and set realistic goals.  If you are not exercising at all, walking around the neighborhood twice per week is realistic. Running 15 miles per week is not.   
  1. Find what you love and stick with it!  Experts say that the most important factor in staying consistent with exercise is picking activities that are enjoyable. There is no shortage of different ways to get moving: yoga, Zumba, cycling, running, walking, dancing, pilates.  Not a group person?  Try using one of the many fitness apps available today to guide you while you exercise by yourself. Don’t like gyms?  Try an exercise DVD at home. Need the company of others to stay motivated? Try a group fitness class at a local gym.
  1. Focus on the journey, not the destination.  Emphasizing the physical effects of exercise, such as losing a certain amount of weight, can be discouraging, as it can take several months to see changes.  However, a boost in mood or decrease in anxiety occurs almost instantly during and after exercise. Enjoy this calm, confident, and invigorated state of mind in the moment, and try to tune into it at other times during the week when your mood is lower.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015

Harvard School of Public Health, Physical Activity Guidelines.
Sharma, A., Madaan, V., Petty, F. Exercise for Mental Health. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 2006; 8(2): 106