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How Exercise Impacts Your Mental Health

How Exercise Impacts Your Mental Health

May 01, 2024

How Exercise Impacts Your Mental Health

Explore the connection between exercise and mental health in this article, which explains regular exercise's positive physical, psychological, and neurological effects.

Table of Contents


A consistent exercise routine can make you stronger and more physically fit. But achieving a lean, toned body is far from the only perk of exercise. Making exercise a consistent part of your routine—whether lifting weights, doing bodyweight exercise, or taking walks outside—can also have serious payoffs for your mental health. 

Research has shown that regular physical activity helps to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, improve concentration and creativity, enhance sleep and energy, and lead to overall improvements in quality of life. 

In this article, learn why an active lifestyle is linked to better mental health, the best forms of exercise for lifting your mood, and how to get started if you're currently more sedentary than you'd like to be.


Connection Between Exercise and Mental Health

Happy man and woman running

You probably know someone in your life who's always talking about their favorite type of exercise, whether it's lifting, a HIIT-style exercise class like CrossFit, yoga, or running marathons. Chances are, one of the reasons they keep coming back for more is how good they feel after they exercise.

The positive effects of exercise on mental health are not merely anecdotal—they're supported by a large body of scientific evidence. For example, according to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, engaging in regular physical activity reduces the risk of developing depression and anxiety by up to 26%.

Many people turn to exercise as a way to cope with stress, anxiety, major depression, and other mental health challenges—and for good reason. Exercise has been found to increase the production of neurochemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which play key roles in regulating mood, stress levels, sleep, motivation, and energy.

Physical Health Benefits of Exercise:

Your physical and mental health are tied to one another, so improving one tends to enhance the other.

There are many ways that exercise can help improve both your overall well-being—including your confidence and quality of life—such as by reducing the risk of many burdensome chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. 

In fact, research suggests that exercise may have a comparable effect on mental health as traditional methods like therapy and medication for mental health disorders.

Regular physical activity during youth and middle age helps to establish healthy habits that can lower the risk of weight gain, obesity, and poor self esteem.

Additionally, among older adults, exercise strengthens muscles and bones, improves heart health, and aids in mobility and independence among older adults. For example, staying active into older age helps decrease the risk of falls and injuries, fights discomfort from arthritis, and can reduce reliance on medications that often have side effects. This boost in physical fitness is correlated with many benefits for a longer, healthier, happier life.

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Mental Health Benefits of Exercise:

Exercise has been linked to numerous psychological benefits, including reduced symptoms of:

How can exercise do so much for your mood and cognitive health? Physical activity stimulates the release of endorphins, neurotransmitters that act as natural mood lifters, promoting feelings of happiness and relaxation. Furthermore, staying active boosts circulation and has anti-inflammatory effects on the brain while promoting neuroplasticity (new neural connections), assisting in functions like learning, memory, and mood stabilization.

Additionally, regular exercise can help regulate cortisol levels over time, which is important considering that chronically elevated cortisol is linked to a multitude of problems like brain fog, weight gain, and inflammation.


5 Ways Physical Activity Improves Your Mood, Cognitive Health, and Life

1. Boosts Your Ability to Cope With Stress

When it comes to dealing with stress, exercise isn’t just about getting fit or losing weight – it can be a powerful tool to help you cope.

First off, let's talk about those feel-good chemicals called endorphins. When you work out, your body releases these natural mood boosters, which can help take the edge off stress and leave you feeling more positive.

Exercise also affects your body’s hormones. Cortisol, the stress hormone, can wreak havoc when it’s out of balance. Regular exercise helps keep cortisol levels in check, preventing them from spiking too high and causing chronic stress.

But it’s not just about the immediate effects – exercise can actually rewire your brain over time. Studies suggest that physical activity promotes the growth of new neurons, which can improve your mood and resilience to stress in the long run.

Plus, more simply, when you’re focused on hitting that next mile marker or mastering a new yoga pose, it’s easier to forget about whatever was stressing you out. Exercise gives you a chance to clear your mind and focus on something positive – even if it’s just for a little while.

2. Can Help Enhance Cognitive Function

In addition to its effects on mood and emotional well-being, exercise can have a significant positive impact on cognitive function. Studies show that physical activity often leads to improvements in memory, attention, and decision-making skills, enhancing overall cognitive performance and reducing the risk of cognitive decline as we age.

Another interesting finding is that many people feel more creative and focused during and following exercise, such as when taking walks outside, which doubles as an excellent stress reliever.

3. Makes You More Disciplined and Focused

Regular exercise not only boosts brainpower but also strengthens self-control. Studies have consistently shown that engaging in exercise not only improves decision making, but also enhances impulse control. This discipline extends beyond the gym, helping people manage stress and make healthier choices in daily life. Plus, the confidence gained from consistent exercise empowers individuals to tackle challenges with resilience and determination. In essence, exercising not only makes you physically fit but also sharpens your mind and builds self-discipline for handling life's demands. 

4. Leads to Better Sleep Quality and More Daytime Energy

Ever notice that when you're very physically active during the day, you sleep like a baby at night? That's because physical activity promotes better sleep by helping to regulate the body's internal clock (the circadian rhythm) and promoting relaxation.

Research shows that exercising can help prevent and treat insomnia and improve sleep efficiency, allowing for more restorative rest. 

Additionally, physical activity can increase daytime energy levels by enhancing overall circulation, oxygenating the body's tissues, and releasing endorphins that boost mood and alertness. 

5. Can Improve Your Social Life

Exercising with others, whether in groups or with friends and family, offers more than just physical benefits—it's a powerful way to build social connections and support networks. Research shows that group exercise fosters camaraderie and enjoyment, boosting motivation and adherence to fitness routines. Additionally, it provides opportunities for social interaction, which can alleviate feelings of loneliness and stress.

Exercising together also strengthens relationships through shared experiences and teamwork. In summary, group exercise not only improves physical health but also enhances mental well-being by nurturing social connections and a sense of belonging.


Two men fist bumping after a workout

How to Get Started: Overcoming Mental Barriers to Exercise

Many people face mental barriers that prevent them from being more active, such as busy schedules, low motivation, fear of judgment, or negative thoughts and self-talk. But you can beat them. When starting an exercise routine, consider the following tips:

  • Seek support: Whether it's from a personal trainer, friends, coach, or therapist, having a support system can provide motivation and guidance.

  • Set realistic goals: Work with your support system to establish achievable objectives that align with your fitness aspirations. Even moderate physical activity can bring benefits!

  • Explore different activities: Try various forms of exercise until you find something you enjoy and look forward to.

  • Start slowly: Begin with manageable workouts and gradually increase intensity and duration as your fitness level improves.

  • Be patient and kind to yourself: Progress takes time, so celebrate small victories and don't be discouraged by setbacks.

  • Stay consistent: Make exercise a regular part of your routine to reap the long-term benefits for both your physical and mental health.

Whether it's a morning jog, an afternoon workout, or an evening yoga session, incorporating exercise into your daily routine is worth it—considering how much it can change your outlook on life. 


Finding Balance: Avoiding Overexertion and Burnout

A man tired wiping his face after a workout

How much exercise is enough? And what's the best type for your mental health?

Organizations like the American Heart Association recommend at least 150 minutes of combined, moderate-intensity exercise per week, which equates to about 20 to 30 minutes per day. While aerobic exercise's effects on mental health have been studied most extensively, feel free to do any type you like most. 

While exercise can be incredibly beneficial for mental health, it's essential to listen to your body and avoid overexertion or burnout. Pushing yourself too hard can lead to physical injuries and mental fatigue, undermining the positive effects of exercise. 

Remember to prioritize rest and recovery (including proper nutrition) as integral components of a healthy exercise routine.

When in doubt, seek help from a personal trainer or physical therapist if you're unsure of what type of exercise is safe and best for your needs.


Key Takeaways on How Exercise Impacts Your Mental Health

  • In additional to physical health, exercise offers many mental health benefits, including reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression, improved mood, and enhanced cognitive function.

  • Physical activity causes changes in neurochemicals (such as increased serotonin and decreased cortisol) that can improve your outlook, confidence, motivation, sleep, and energy.

  • Consistency is crucial for reaping the mental health benefits of exercise, so establish a regular routine that you look forward to and can stick with long-term.

  • Be mindful of avoiding overexertion and burnout by listening to your body and prioritizing rest and recovery.


This article is for educational purposes only and does not substitute professional mental health advice or treatment. It's crucial to consult a qualified mental health professional if you have concerns about your well-being or experience mental health symptoms. Individual experiences vary, and only a professional can offer personalized guidance and support. Avoid self-diagnosis and self-treatment, as they may worsen conditions. In case of crisis, seek immediate assistance from a crisis hotline or emergency services. The authors are not mental health professionals and do not provide mental health services. Any decisions based on this article should be discussed with a qualified professional.

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