Exercise and mental health
Reviewed by Stephanie Steinman
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 11/16/2022
Many people are aware of the benefits of exercise for physical health, but a growing body of research and information is also showing how beneficial exercise is for our mental health.
What Is Exercise?
Exercise is simply an activity or form of movement that requires some physical effort.
A wide range of activities and movements can be considered as exercise. Aerobic exercise, such as cycling, walking, or swimming, moves the large muscles in the body. Anaerobic exercise involves quick bursts of energy and includes weight training and sprinting.
While these are considered more traditional types of exercise, there are many other varieties that may be more accessible to people of different ages, body types, and abilities. Yoga, dancing, sports, or simple movement and stretching are some good examples. Even everyday activities, like doing household chores or taking a walk, may be considered exercise.
What “Counts” as Exercise?
While we may think of exercise as something that takes place in an exercise environment like a gym, the reality is that many of our daily activities are forms of exercise. Exercise doesn’t have to be high intensity to “count.” In fact, frequent movement throughout the day can actually be better for your health than a gym session. Regular walking1, for example, has much of the same benefits as aerobic exercise.
Research has shown that mindset about exercise matters. You may have a job that involves a lot of walking or time on your feet, yet you may still tell yourself you don’t have time for exercise. However, by acknowledging all the body movement that you are getting daily counts as exercise, you can actually improve your physical health.
Focusing on movement or activity as a goal for exercise can help you find exercise that is not only good for you, but that you also enjoy. Walking, gardening, shoveling snow, or dancing can be just as impactful for your physical and mental health as hitting the treadmill at the gym.
Benefits of Exercise on Mental Health
Exercise is not only good for your body, but also for your mental health. Mental health benefits associated with exercise include:
- Improved mood: Even short periods of movement can give you a mood boost.
- Decrease stress: Exercise has been shown to help improve communication between the central nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system. This can help decrease stress.
- Better sleep: Exercise can lead to better sleep as it can help regulate the body’s circadian rhythm.
- Mental boost: Exercise can help improve overall brain performance.
- Self-esteem and self-confidence: In addition to helping you feel stronger, exercise also gives you the opportunity to set goals (from running a 5k to swimming a pool lap to increasing your flexibility) and achieve them, contributing to higher levels of self-esteem and self-confidence.
Can Exercise Cure Mental Illness?
Exercise cannot cure a mental illness, just like it cannot cure a physical illness. It can be a helpful part of a treatment program for some people, but exercise alone is not a cure.
If you are interested in how exercise could help elevate your mood, improve your sleep quality, or increase your energy, talk to your therapist about how exercise may help your mental health and well-being.
Exercise and Depression
Studies have shown that regular activity2 can be an effective way to reduce the symptoms of depression. Exercise can also be used in combination with medication to help reduce symptoms. Doing some form of moderate aerobic exercise for about 30 minutes throughout the week, which could include mowing the lawn or taking a brisk walk on your lunch break, can help lift your mood and help you sleep better.
While exercise can be helpful for depression, the symptoms of depression can also make exercising more difficult. Symptoms like fatigue or feeling hopeless can make regular activity harder. This is a time to try acting the opposite to your mood. Even a five-minute walk can help.
How Does Exercise Improve Mood?
Exercise can help improve the symptoms of mood disorders like depression. This is because exercise creates a number of changes within the body during and after exercise.
First, exercise increases the heart rate, which then brings more oxygen to the brain. Exercise also helps produce more feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and endorphins in the brain. These neurotransmitters can elevate a person’s mood and give them energy.
Exercise can help create more connections in the parts of the brain that regulate emotions and perceptions. It also helps reduce stress hormones in the body, which can influence mood and how we respond to the world around us. Exercise can even serve as a distraction from negative thoughts that are often associated with depression.
How to Exercise When You Feel Depressed
When you feel depressed, it can be difficult to exercise or to stay motivated to exercise. How can you get regular activity and stick with it? Here are some simple tips to get started:
- Start with simple movement: Use simple, everyday activities to help you get started and build up the habit. This can include everything from gardening to household chores to doing some stretching or yoga.
- Choose activities that you enjoy: Focus on doing things that you like to do. This will make it more likely that you’ll stick with it. Trying kicking a ball around with your kids or checking out a new trail or path in your neighborhood.
- Make a plan to exercise: Putting exercise on your calendar can help remind you to block out time to get it done. Remember that you don’t need long periods of exercise. Thirty minutes is great to aim for, but you can start shorter. Even just setting a timer to get some movement in 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 give you the encouragement to exercise regularly.
Does Exercise Help with Anxiety?
Exercise may help reduce the symptoms of anxiety for some people. Aside from helping to relax tense muscles, exercise can also divert attention away from what was creating anxiety in the first place. It can also activate portions of our brain that reduce our fight-or-flight reactions. For some people with panic symptoms, doing a few jumping jacks or sprints can help them take control of their breathing and heart rate, as well as help the panic symptoms decrease.
When Exercise Makes Anxiety Worse
For other people, however, exercise can be destructive and make anxiety worse. This can include people experiencing certain anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses, such as eating disorders. The physical changes of exercise—elevated heart rate, sweating, and rapid breathing—are all similar to those that people may experience during a panic attack and can be triggering.
If exercise is making your anxiety worse, talking to a therapist is one of the best courses of action. Your therapist can work with you to try to find solutions, whether that is finding activities that don’t worsen your anxiety or helping you find ways to manage your anxiety during exercise.
Exercise and Stress
Exercise has been shown to help alleviate the physical and mental symptoms of stress. When you exercise, your body increases the production of endorphins, which are feel-good neurotransmitters. Exercise can also help distract you from the things that are causing you stress as you focus on the movements you’re doing. In addition, exercise can help reduce the negative effects of stress on your body.
When Exercise Can Damage Mental Health
While we generally think of exercise as a benefit to mental health, there are times when exercise can be harmful to mental health. Any exercise that is fueled by shame, whether internal shame or external shame, can become harmful. For example, people may choose to exercise due to comments others have made about their bodies. Likewise, comparing yourself to others at the gym can end up making you feel worse.
Exercise can also be harmful when it is taken to extremes. Studies show that people who become overly dependent on exercise3 can experience physical damage to their body as well as negative impacts for their mental health.
Exercise as Self-Harm
When taken to extremes or paired with disordered eating habits, exercise may be considered a form of self-harm. Like other forms of self-harm, taking exercise to extremes can be a way of hurting the body in order to deal with emotions or overwhelming situations. Exercise that is fueled by self-hatred or self-abuse can damage one’s mental health rather than help it.
Fatphobia and Body Shaming
Popular culture in the United States puts a great deal of emphasis on being thin. This can lead to exercise being used in harmful ways, even though thinness and fatness are not indicative of health, value, or morality.
Fatphobia is an abnormal fear of being fat or even of being around fat people. Body shaming or fat shaming involves critical and demeaning messages about how a person looks due to their size or weight.
Both fatphobia and body shaming can create harmful exercise practices and negative mental health outcomes. Exercising out of shame is not a good motivator for healthy change. A person’s size often does not tell their entire health story.
Historically, women have been the main targets of fatphobia and body shaming. However, men, transgender individuals, and nonbinary people can also experience these harmful cultural pressures.
Improve Your Physical and Mental Health with Exercise
Incorporating regular exercise and movement can help improve your mental health. If you are struggling with your mental health, talk to a therapist today about how exercise may be able to help reduce the symptoms of mental health issues.
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.