Exercise and mental health
Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger, PhD
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 08/17/2023
Exercise is any activity or form of movement that requires physical effort. You might think of exercise as something that takes place in a dedicated environment like a gym, but the reality is that many of our daily activities are forms of exercise.
Exercise doesn’t have to be high-intensity to “count.” Taking walks regularly, for example, provides many of the same benefits as more intensive aerobic workouts.1 A wide range of activities can be considered exercise, such as yoga, dancing, sports, or even household chores.
Many of us know about the benefits of exercise for our physical health. But a growing body of research shows how beneficial exercise can also be for mental and emotional well-being.
The positive impacts of exercise
The mental health benefits of exercise include:
- Improved mood: Exercising can lead to a more positive attitude and a feeling of increased energy for several hours afterward.
- Decreased stress: As you exercise, your body releases a small rush of stress hormones.2 Afterward, your body regulates itself so you feel less stressed throughout the day.
- Better sleep: Exercise has been shown to improve not only sleep latency (the ability to fall asleep quickly), but also sleep quality.3
- Mental boost: Exercise can help boost overall brain performance by improving memory and overall cognition.4
- Improved self-esteem and self-confidence: In addition to helping you feel stronger, exercise also gives you the opportunity to set goals and achieve them, which can contribute to higher levels of self-esteem and self-confidence.
The negative impacts of exercise
Though we generally think of exercise as good for our health, there are times when it can be harmful.
- Overtraining: Studies show that people who exercise too much can experience physical damage to their bodies.5
- Exercise as self-harm: When taken to an extreme or paired with disordered eating habits, exercise may be considered a form of self-harm. It becomes a way of hurting the body in order to deal with overwhelming emotions or situations.
- Shame-motivated exercise: Any exercise fueled by shame can become harmful. For example, some people may choose to exercise because of comments others have made about their bodies. Exercise driven by self-hatred or self-abuse can harm your mental health instead of helping it.
Exercise and mental health conditions
Exercise can’t cure mental health conditions, but it can be an important part of treatment programs for some people.
If you’re struggling with your mental health, start by finding a therapist to help you create a long-term management plan that may or may not include exercise.
Exercise and depression
Research shows that regular activity can help reduce the symptoms of depression.6 Doing some form of moderate aerobic exercise throughout the week, such as mowing the lawn or taking a walk on your lunch break, can help lift your mood and improve your sleep.
While exercise can be helpful for depression, the symptoms of depression can also make exercising more difficult. Feeling fatigued or hopeless can make it harder to stay active.
When you feel depressed, you may find it challenging to kick off an exercise routine and stick with it. Here are some tips to get started.
- Start with simple movement. Use everyday activities to help build a habit of daily movement. Many household tasks can be a form of exercise, from gardening to vacuuming.
- Choose activities you enjoy. Focus on doing things you like, and try reframing exercise as a hobby rather than a task. Explore a new trail or path in your neighborhood, or try a new workout app.
- Make a plan to exercise. Putting exercise on your calendar can help you remember to block out time for it. Remember that you don’t need long periods of exercise, especially right out of the gate. Thirty minutes is a great goal, but feel free to start shorter. Something as basic as setting a timer so you stand up from your desk and walk around every hour can help.
- Involve someone else. Depression can make you want to withdraw from the people around you. Including someone else in your exercise plans can help you stay connected and encourage you to keep active.
Exercise and anxiety
Exercise may also help reduce the symptoms of anxiety.7 In addition to helping relax your muscles, exercise can divert attention away from what was creating anxiety in the first place. It can also activate portions of the brain that reduce our fight-or-flight reactions, as well as release serotonin and other anxiety-fighting neurotransmitters.8
When exercise makes anxiety worse
It’s important to note that in some cases, exercise can cause or worsen anxiety. The physical effects of exercise—elevated heart rate, sweating, and rapid breathing—are similar to what people may experience during a panic attack and can be triggering. Research indicates that strong feelings of anxiety can happen during or right after exercise, even if the activity reduces anxiety in the long term.9
If exercise is making your anxiety worse, consider talking to a therapist. They can work with you to find solutions, whether that means exploring activities that don’t worsen your anxiety or helping you manage your anxiety without exercise.
Fatphobia and body shaming
Popular culture in the United States puts a lot of emphasis on being thin. This can lead to using exercise in harmful ways, such as trying to match a certain physical ideal. Research suggests that social pressure to lose weight creates negative patterns that offer little to no physical benefit and can harm our mental health.10
“Fatphobia” describes the widely held stigma against larger bodies. This stigma is usually linked to the belief that smaller bodies are healthier or more attractive, and that people with larger bodies have somehow failed to take care of themselves. Fatphobia can take the form of “body shaming” (or “fat shaming”), which involves critical messages about how someone looks. It can also create other barriers, like when medical professionals make biased assumptions about a patient’s habits or overall health based solely on their weight.11
Keep in mind that body weight is not the only indicator of someone’s health and has no link to their value as a person. Exercise can have mental and physical benefits—but only when it’s used in healthful ways, not as a means of “fixing” perceived flaws in how a person looks.
Pursuing physical and emotional health is a lifelong journey. Exercise is just one tool for you to use along the way. If you feel your relationship with exercise has become unhealthy, a therapist can help you understand why and how to make positive changes. Browse our directory to find a licensed mental health professional near you today.
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.