Exercise and Your Mental Health

Exercise and Your Mental Health - Smiling young woman tying laces on training shoes while sitting on fitness mat.

Research, education, and information dissemination have largely centered on the necessity for exercise to ward off risk for many conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer (Lee et al., 2012), but what about the role of exercise and your mental health? Exercise has proven to be beneficial for improving overall mental well-being. One sizable study incorporating a million participants found that those who engaged in regular exercise over the prior month described a significant, positive impact on their mental health. Those who exercised regularly, three to five days per week, reported 43 percent less days of poor mental health, validating the importance of exercise on mental well-being. (Chehroud et al., 2018).

What is known about the impact of exercise and your mental health:

  • Improves self-esteem: fosters a sense of accomplishment, promotes health and physical transformation (improved strength, increased muscle mass, cardiovascular and immune benefits).
  • Implements the use of healthy coping mechanisms: avoiding maladaptive behaviors such as the use of alcohol or drugs which can intensify impairing mood symptoms.
  • Acts as a distractor to symptoms of anxiety and depression as they are replaced with positive thought patterns (Mayo Clinic, 2020).
  • Falling asleep is easier, and sleep is more restful. A significant association as sleep is largely tied to mental well-being and daily functioning (Johns Hopkins Medicine, 2020).

Physiology of Exercise: Explanations

Physical activity triggers the release of mood enhancing chemicals (Mayo Clinic, 2020).  This phenomenon is not fully understood, but the belief is the increase in blood flow to the brain during exercise alters reaction to stress. In turn, function, development, and work among neurons within the brain are enhanced. Emotions are better regulated, information recall sharpens, and mood is more uplifted (Gingell, 2018).

 The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal access (HPA) is a portion of the brain responsible for memory, mood, stress, and fear reactions. Understanding this process makes it easy to see how the HPA reaps the benefits of exercise and as a result, symptoms characteristic to depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) improve (Sharma, Madan, & Petty, 2006).

Perhaps you’re looking for some added benefits, so why not exercise outside?  Outdoor time increases Vitamin D, aiding in immunity, enhancing energy, and lifting mood.   Sunlight exposure, especially in the morning, stimulates the production of melatonin, a chemical responsible for sleep and regulation of circadian rhythm (Mead, 2008).

Formulating a Plan

By now you must be asking, “where do I start?”

The answer is simple – anywhere!

Find movement that works for you:  your body, comfort level, interests, and budget. Team sports, cycling, aerobic activities, and group exercise have demonstrated greatest benefit, however every type of physical activity is effective and beneficial (Chekroud et al., 2018).

Remain consistent and be kind to yourself with whatever effort you put forth. Aim for consistency, small changes, and strive for reasonable challenges. Pushing too hard is unnecessary and you’re less likely to keep up with an unrealistic routine.


Chekroud, S.R., Gueorguivea, R., Zheutlin, A.B., Paulus, M., Krumholz, H.M., Krystal, J.H. et al. (2018). Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1.2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: A cross-sectional study. The Lancet, 5(9), 739-746.

Gingell, S. (2018). How your mental health reaps the benefit of exercise. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-works-and-why/201803/how-your-mental-health-reaps-the-benefits-exercise
doi: https://doi.org/10/1016/S2215-0366(18)30227-X

Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2020). Exercising for better sleep. Retrieved from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/exercising-for-better-sleep

Lee, I., Shiroma, E.J., Lobelo, F., Puska, P., Blakr, S.N., Katzmarzyk, P.T., et al. (2012). Effect of physical inactivity on major non-communicable disease worldwide: An analysis of burden of disease and life expectancy. The lancet, 380(9838), 219-229.
Doi: https:doi/org/10.1016/S0140-6736(12)61031-9

Mayo Clinic. (2020). Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/depression-and-exercise/art-20046495

Mead, M. N. (2008). Benefits of sunlight: A bright spot for human health. Environmental Health Perspectives, 116(5), A197.

Sharma, A., Madann, V., Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for mental health. Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 8(2), 106.
Doi: 10.4088/pcc.v08n0208a



Renae is a board-certified Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner who sees patients of all ages. Renae embraces all populations, however, holds special interests in anxiety, depression, maternal mental health, and military populations.

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