Medically reviewed by Dr. Greg Carson, Licensed Psychologist and diplomate from the Academy of Cognitive Therapy.

Exercising for your Mental Health

When people talk about exercise and mental health, they’re often referring to how it can improve one’s physical health. But at the same time, routine strength training and cardio workouts can also have a positive impact on our mental health, which is just as, if not more important, than our physical well-being. 

In fact, some studies suggest that exercise of any kind, be that weightlifting or riding a bike, may enhance mental health and well-being and be just as effective at alleviating symptoms of stress and depression as therapeutic interventions such as expressive writing. 

Considering that one-in-five adults are suffering from some form of mental illness, we wanted to compile a list of the benefits exercise has on mental health, give you tips on how to start and maintain a routine and hear from the experts on how your daily workout can help fight certain mental illnesses.   

What are the Mental Health Benefits of Exercise?

Higher Confidence And Self Esteem

“[Exercise] increases the body’s overall feeling of energy and resilience, improves sleep quality, and builds confidence in our abilities,” Nassour says. 

Better Memory And Cognition

“Your mood, memory, and concentration can be boosted by exercise through the release of feel-good endorphins, promotion of new brain growth, and strengthening of the hippocampus, the part of your brain involved in memory and learning,” says Mayra Diaz, a therapist who specializes in treating people with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

An image representing exercise and mental health

Improved Sleep 

A review of dozens of studies on exercise’s impacts on sleep found that it improved both how well people slept, along with increased the amount of time they were able to sleep, especially in middle-aged and older adults. “The mental health experts we spoke to said this was due to the fact that physical activity and the benefits of exercise for older adults reduces people’s stress, which helps them fall asleep easier.” 

Better Mood

Erika Vivyan, a licensed psychologist, pointed out that regular exercise promotes the release of dopamine and serotonin, “which help us to better manage our stress and anxiety responses.”  

Higher Energy Levels 

Exercise can make us feel more energized because it actually causes your body to produce more energy-supplying cells and increases our energy circulation, according to doctors at Harvard Medical School

Healthier Coping Mechanisms

“Twenty minutes of aerobic exercise has been shown to lower the activation of your nervous system and amygdala,” Mayra says, referring to the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions. “This can lower your general levels of anxiety at rest, which can help you better cope and rebound from stressors.” 

Overcoming Obstacles to Exercising

Starting a physical exercise routine can be challenging for anybody, but it’s especially hard for those experiencing symptoms of mental illness. 

“In fact, depressed individuals sometimes have a hard time getting out of bed, so you can only imagine how challenging it can be to move their bodies,” says Michael Vallejo, a licensed clinical social worker. 

Colleen Wenner, a licensed mental health counselor, adds that some people may experience even more negative emotions if they find it difficult to start a routine.

“They often believe they’ve lost the battle even before they start. This preconceived mindset makes  people excuse themselves from working out and avoid starting their workouts.” 

Colleen Wenner

Other barriers and obstacles to exercise may include: 

  • Lack of motivation
  • Lack of access to a gym or equipment
  • Lack of time 
  • Lack of a support system 
  • Physical issues 

Colleen also adds that those with self-image issues may have a harder time getting started than most. “If someone has low self-esteem, then they may avoid working out because they don’t like how they look,” she says. “If someone doesn’t like themselves, then they won’t like what their reflection looks like. A mental health specialist’s role then would be to help individuals overcome these obstacles so they can achieve their goals.” 

However, most mental health professionals agree that once people get into a routine it becomes a part of their everyday life. “Once they’re able to get moving, they often find it easier to keep exercising after that,” says Meagan Turner, a licensed associate professional counselor. “It’s important to encourage people to find something they enjoy doing before going down the rabbit hole of finding the ‘perfect’ HIIT regimen, or any other regimen, for themselves.”

How Do I Start Exercising?

If you’re finding it hard to set an exercise routine for yourself, here are some helpful tips. 

Find Activities You Enjoy 

cross training for endurance athletes graphic of swimming elliptical weight training bodyweight training yoga pilates

“You don’t have to go all-in on fitness,” Nassour says. “Even small amounts of exercise are still beneficial. If you can’t run, go for a walk; if you don’t like working out, try dancing or playing games instead. Start small and simple, and look for ways to make it fun.” 

Make Working Out as Convenient as Possible 

As a certified personal trainer, I often get asked when the best time to workout is, and the answer is, “Whenever you have time.” Have 10 minutes before a work call? Do some push-ups or pick up a set of dumbbells and try some bicep curls. Have an appointment on the third floor? Take the stairs instead of the elevator. 

Splitting up your physical activity into little chunks throughout the day can be just as beneficial as doing it in one shot.

Create a Healthy Habit and Reinforce It

Whether it’s going for a morning walk, doing yoga, or a light jog on your treadmill,  find a healthy habit that works for you. Then find ways to stick with it (for example, you can only watch Netflix while on the treadmill). You can reinforce it by delaying looking at social media or something else that’s purely pleasure until after you’ve completed your exercise for the day.

Find an Accountability Partner 

“If you’re struggling to keep yourself accountable, join a group or ask a friend to be your accountability buddy,” Mayra says. “Exercising in group settings can also improve your mental health by increasing your sense of connection with others.” 

Keep Tabs on Small Wins and Reward Yourself 

Every time you reach a goal, treat yourself to a little something such as your favorite dessert.

Practice Breathing Techniques or Yoga  

“When you do different exercises and yoga, you are bringing your mind into the present moment by connecting your mind and your body together,” says Katie Ziskind, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in holistic treatment. “If you find that you have high anxiety, exercising and doing yoga can teach you how to deepen your breath and lower your heart rate. It’s a better way to handle stress.”

Exercise Outdoors 

You probably know that the sun is our body’s main source of Vitamin D, but did you know that nutrient is directly tied to our moods? Studies have shown that people with lower Vitamin D levels often have a higher risk of depression or bad moods. So take your workouts outside

How Does Exercise Affect Mental Health?

Exercise can have positive impacts on your overall mental health, but it can also help alleviate or reduce the severity of certain conditions. Turner explains how physical activity can help those with anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.  

Exercise & Anxiety 

“Exercise can help reduce anxiety in a number of ways,” Turner says. “When you exercise, your brain’s opioid and cannabinoid receptors are activated which causes your body to experience short-term anxiety relief. Over time, exercise also helps to regulate your body’s production of the stress hormone cortisol. With normalized levels of cortisol, you’re better able to handle the worries life throws at you, decreasing your overall anxiety.” 

Exercise & Depression 

“If you’ve been in the exercise world for any length of time, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the ‘runner’s high,’ says Turner. “With moderate to intense exercise, your body releases more endorphins than it does when you’re sedentary. These feel-good endorphins, such as dopamine, are like rewards for your body’s hard work and often result in you feeling happier than before your workout.” 

Exercise & PTSD

“Because PTSD symptoms overlap with symptoms of both anxiety and depression, people suffering with PTSD reap the benefits already mentioned,” Turner says. “In addition to those, exercise can also serve to reduce the hyperarousal, or feeling of always being on alert, that’s present with PTSD. Exercise, particularly cardio but anything that gets your heart racing or stresses your body, can over time help your body to realize that an increased heart rate or the feeling of running does not necessarily indicate danger. Over time, your brain and body habituate to those uncomfortable physiological responses and learn that you can tolerate those feelings without having to be on high alert.” 

Exercise And Mental Health FAQs 

How does exercise affect mental health?

“Exercise almost always has a beneficial effect on mental health because your body tends to release endorphins when you are engaged in physical, and even strenuous, activities,” says licensed clinical social worker and water sports instructor Dmitri Oster. “Endorphins are essentially ‘feel-good’ hormones the human body releases when engaged in various pleasurable activities, and exercise is certainly one of them.”

How does exercise reduce stress and anxiety?

“Exercise can help to release endorphins, which are hormones that have mood-boosting properties,” says Ashley Holm, a licensed social worker and master of social work. “Endorphins can help to improve your mood and make you feel more positive. They can also help to reduce stress levels.”

“In addition to endorphins, exercise can also help to increase levels of serotonin,” she adds. “Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for regulating mood. When levels of serotonin are low, it can lead to feelings of depression. Exercise can help to increase levels of serotonin, which can improve your mood and reduce your risk of developing depression.”

How does exercise impact the brain?

“Exercise influences the brain’s development and function, leading to better memory and learning,” Weiss says. “As a result, regular physical activity lowers the risk of developing cognitive impairment, such as dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, exercise has been found to improve mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood, and improving self-esteem and cognitive function.”

What are some of the best exercises or activities for mental health?

“The best exercise is one that you can stick to. Try many different ones, looking for something that’s satisfying, accessible, and fits into your lifestyle. This could be anything from ping-pong to marathons,” Nassour says.

Mental Health Professionals You Can Reach Out To For Assistance

PsychiatristsLicensed medical doctors trained to diagnose and treat mental disorders and prescribe medications for patients.
PsychotherapistsA general term for people who treat mental disorders using psychotherapy. The term is most often used by people with a master’s degree in the mental health field. Look for one that is licensed such as a Licensed Professional Counselor, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapy, or Licensed Clinical Social Worker.  
PsychologistsLicensed psychologists hold a doctoral degree in psychology (Ph.D., PsyD, or EdD) and are trained to diagnose, evaluate and administer testing, and provide psychotherapy and other behavioral treatments.  
Counselors Counselor is a generic term for anyone who talks with another person about an issue and assists them in reaching a goal. It is most often used by people who do not have a mental health license but who do mental health treatments such as employees at an addiction treatment center, but it is sometimes used to refer to attorneys-at-law.  
Peer specialistsA trained and sometimes supervised advocate who has experienced the same mental health conditions as those with whom they are working. They do not have formal mental health education and are not licensed.

Our Takeaways

There have been great strides in removing the stigma around mental health conversations, but that doesn’t mean the job is finished. As people who have dedicated themselves to helping people improve their health, we have to recognize that means their mental well-being as well. 

“Exercise helps mental health broadly across domains,” Turner says. “It has been shown to decrease fatigue associated with depression, stimulate neurotransmitters partly responsible for low mood, and improve executive functioning skills.” 

“Exercising benefits one’s entire being—physically and mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually,” Wenner says. “For example, physical activity improves memory, concentration, and attention span.” 

If you or any other person has a medical concern, you should consult with your health care provider or seek other professional medical treatment immediately. Visit the National Institute of Mental Health to find out how to get help. 

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