The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

Health Articles
May 20, 2021

Can exercise benefit your mental health? We investigated, and here’s what we found.

When most people start pumping iron or pounding the pavement, they’re thinking about building a body that wouldn’t look out of place on a Greek statue. That’s all well and good, but the mental health benefits of regular exercise could be just as important as the physical benefits. How does the link between exercise and mental health actually work, and which studies have been conducted on the subject? Exercise may have a positive impact on mental health—here’s just some of the evidence. But don’t forget to consult with a doctor before kicking off a new exercise program.

The impact of exercise on depression

There’s plenty of evidence highlighting the link between exercise and depression, with a number of studies suggesting that exercise may alleviate some of the symptoms of depression. Regular physical activity can help to reduce the risk of developing depression, while it may also cut the risk of suicidal ideation. But what’s the actual mechanism behind it? It’s pretty simple. The endorphins, or feel-good chemicals released by your brain during exercise, create feelings of euphoria and happiness that can help to relieve depression. When people talk about a “runner’s high,” this is what they’re talking about.
While people with depression may find it difficult to exercise regularly, the results could be seriously impactful, with a recent study arguing that just 150 minutes per week could cut your risk of depression by 15–16%. There’s a little bit of debate around which “dose” of exercise per week is most effective for depression, but studies suggest that a “dose” that’s either high or consistent with public health recommendations is more likely to lead to remission for those with depression.

Exercise and anxiety

There’s also considerable evidence for the benefits of exercise when it comes to clinical anxiety, as well as more general forms of anxiety. An increasing number of studies are demonstrating that people who lead sedentary lifestyles have higher rates of anxiety and depression than those who lead much more active lives. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), just five minutes of aerobic exercise may cause an anti-anxiety effect. So, how does all this actually work? When you exercise, neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine are released, boosting your mood and sense of well-being, and banishing the blues—at least to a certain extent.

Can exercise reduce stress?

Research suggests that people with active lifestyles have lower rates of stress than those who lead inactive lives. Why? It’s because exercise lowers the hormone called cortisol, which is responsible for your body’s “fight or flight” alarm. When it’s elevated, this hormone taxes your immune system and raises your blood pressure, all of which can add to stress.
A review of the literature on the stress-busting effects of exercise found that about half of all studies showed that physical activity had a moderating effect on stress, and the authors of the study recommended physical activity as a potential stress-management strategy. So, if you’re feeling stressed out and need an outlet to deal with it, it might be worth carving out some time in the day to work up a sweat.
And did you know that exercise and sleep are also connected? We interviewed sleep researcher Dr. Pierre Herve Luppi, who says, “The more physical activity you get, the easier you go to sleep and the deeper sleep you get.” And depression, anxiety and other mood disorders are linked to chronic sleep debt.
While you’re here, be sure to check out our in-depth study on Wellness in the Workplace! We found that active women were significantly less stressed than inactive women, on average.

The effect of exercise on self-esteem

Self-esteem is an important part of a satisfying life and healthy mental state, and research suggests that exercise could be a powerful medium to promote self-worth and body image. Recent studies have demonstrated that increased physical activity can have a direct impact on self-esteem, while playing sports or doing other physical activities could be an important part of developing self-esteem in childhood. So, for better body image and self-esteem, upping the ante when it comes to your physical fitness could be the right move.

Is exercise a mood-booster?

Finally, exercise may be an effective way of boosting positive moods and emotions. Studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise can lead to enhanced positive mood, helping people feel more energized and pleasant. Another study looking at the effect of physical activity on people’s day-to-day moods found that—after a short burst of exercise—people felt calmer, more awake, and more content than those who had experienced a period of inactivity. Our own data revealed a link between activity and happiness, and comedian Paula Poundstone conducted her own unscientific experiment by training with a Taekwondo master. For anyone who’s finding the daily grind a bit of a buzzkill, working in some gym time might be the solution.
So, what’s the verdict? Is exercise really an effective tool to improve your mental health? The research suggests that this potentially inexpensive activity could have a seriously beneficial impact on your mental health. To see the connection between exercise and mental health for yourself, why not start a new fitness regimen and see if you notice any effects?