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How Exercise Impacts Your Mental Health

joggerMost people living in a modern world understand that regular exercise is beneficial to physical health.  And many people recognize that exercise makes them “feel better.”

In fact, incorporating exercise into a sedentary lifestyle can have significant physical and mental health benefits. Exercise is healthy, inexpensive and, according to Roger Walsh in the October 2011 issue of The American Psychologist, underused to treat psychiatric disorders.  In his review, Walsh found that exercise reduces the risk of multiple diseases, including cancer, and improves physical disorders such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Last week I discussed how unhealthy lifestyles can contribute to an array of physical problems and can play can an equally important role your mental health and maintaining a sense of well-being.

This week, I will review exercise specifically.  I summarize, below, some of Walsh’s findings in his review of the literature exploring how exercise impacts mental health.

Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

Exercise offers preventative and therapeutic psychological benefits.  It can reduce the risk of depression and chronic pain, as well as neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.  Depression, anxiety, eating addictive disorders and body dysmorphic disorders are all responsive to exercise as an adjunct to treatment.  Even some symptoms of schizophrenia improve with exercise.

Depression is the most studied mental health disorder in relation to exercise.  With depression the evidence points to benefits that are comparable to both medication and therapy.

Why can exercise have antidepressant effects?

  • Serotonin levels change with exercise and improve sleep. With better sleep, mood improves.
  • Exercise releases endorphins in the body, a chemical in the brain associated with positive mood.
  • The break down of muscle tension through exercise can improve sleep and decrease physical pain and discomfort associated with depression.
  • Exercise can lead to improvements in self-esteem and feelings of self-worth.
  • It can interrupt cycles of negative thoughts and rumination.

What type of exercise proves a valuable adjunct to medication and therapy?

  • Aerobic exercise
  • Weight training
  • Higher intensity workouts tend to be more effective, although lower intensity still have benefits.

Exercise and the Brain: What impact can exercise have on cognitive functioning?

  • Enhances academic performance in youth
  • Aids in stroke recovery
  • Reduces age-related memory loss
  • Reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s and non-Alzheimer’s dementia
  • Improves cognitive performance, emotional states, coordination and planning in the elderly and those with Alzheimer’s

How might exercise improve cognitive function?

  • Exercise increases brain volume (the size of the brain)
  • Exercise increases blood flow and vascularization, that is the formation of blood vessels and capillaries in the brain

Even brief counseling can motivate many people to make changes in the amount of exercise they get.  Given the low risk of side effects and the substantial positive effects, it is an important option to consider when you are looking to improve your mental well-being.

You can find more strategies to improve how you feel in my new book, The Stress Response

Jogger photo available from Shutterstock.

How Exercise Impacts Your Mental Health

Christy Matta, MA

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APA Reference
Matta, C. (2012). How Exercise Impacts Your Mental Health. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 27, 2019, from


Last updated: 12 Apr 2012
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