How can exercise impact mental health

An introduction

Mental health is the condition of a person on a psychological and emotional level. Studies have found that exercising has benefits to your mental health as well as physical. So why aren’t people training for their mental health you might ask? Well in many cases people don’t actually understand mental health problems if they haven’t faced them themselves, so do not see the benefit or urgency in exercising for their mental health. However, for those of you that are reading this and perhaps thinking your life won’t get better, that’s where I’m going to tell you, you’re wrong, exercise is your friend.

I had a friend in school who always got up early and went for a run, every morning, sun, rain, snow whatever weather. I asked him why, he simply said “it makes me happy”. At the time I thought running was his hobby just as reading was mine. However, it was only when he told me about his stress and what was causing it that I realized, this is his coping mechanism, and with the things he was going through, exercise really works.

So what is good mental health? To me, good mental health is being able to use your abilities to deal with the stresses of life and helping others along the way. Alternatively, bad mental health is the inability to cope with the stresses of life productively, which can make it hard to help others.

As someone who has experienced mental health issues myself and had loved ones who experience the same, I realise the importance of exercise daily. Physical activity plays an important role in coping with mild and moderate mental health problems, so here’s how exercise can have an impact on mental health.


The time of day you exercise has the ability to change your day. A lot of people work a job that requires you to be up early in the morning, and you may know that sluggish feeling. By including moderate exercise before you go to work then it will more than likely improve your mood.

This is because certain forms of exercise, usually anything that requires a moderate deal of effort, boosts endorphins (happy hormones) in the brain. The happy hormones then improve your perspective of the challenges you face daily and will allow you to enter them with a clearer head and seemingly with more energy.

Reduce stress and anxiety

For anyone feeling overwhelmed with the workload of their job or having anxiety about the new job they just started for example, a walk or run after work can help relieve the stress and anxiety. Running and other forms of exercise increase endorphins in the brain as I mentioned before. However, in this context, endorphins reduce the sensation of pain, therefore the increased amount in the brain can combat stress and trauma more effectively.

For many, alcohol is an escape from the stress accompanied by a hangover or laziness the next day, for me exercising gave me an escape but the following day I’d be ready to get the next task done. It works as a form of meditation on the move as the focus on that one physical task is essentially the same as the focus on the object or thought when meditating. Consequently, exercise helps to achieve a clear mind.

Improved self-confidence

Whether you exercise to lose weight or gain muscle or simply for fun, everyone is doing it to improve themselves. Whilst looking in the mirror in the morning at the constant improvement from exercise, one perceives themselves to be a more attractive person. The truth is that person was always there, but now you can see the change and it drives you, it gives you purpose and belief in yourself. If looking in the mirror and seeing the change that way, take before an after photos quite often as the difference will be greater, once you have been doing this a while you’ll have a fitness journey recorded too!

Boost cognitive performance

Exercise supports healthy blood flow which transfers more nutrients to the brain, such as glucose, which your cells use for energy. Studies have shown that exercising boosts memory which can assist children in school etc. Furthermore, as we age, exercising will keep our mind active and it slows the aging process in the brain.

Furthermore, exercising boosts the levels of brain-derived neutrophic factor (BDNF), which is like a protein for your brain. Imagine your brain is like your muscles after the gym, those muscles need protein from foods such as chicken and quinoa to heal and grow effectively. Well your brain needs BDNF after it learns something to help hold that information.

Control addiction

Exercise releases dopamine which makes us feel rewarded for our efforts. Common sources of dopamine that people become reliant on are alcohol and drugs. Becoming addicted to either one of these substances makes you think that you’re happier but in the longer term you’ll realise the effects on your body and just feel worse off. That’s where exercise comes in, it can distract you from cravings until they pass over. Even a short exercise session will also give you a boost that alcohol could, without the hangover!

Greater productivity

After a run I always feel more energetic and motivated to do other things like tidy the house or cook a nice meal. Without exercise in the morning I don’t really have any energy or motivation, even if life isn’t stressful or difficult. Almost every time I force myself to get the exercise done I’ll feel better for the morning at least. This allows me to get things done without a second thought, particularly the things I don’t want to do like chores! Exercise has more meaning too though, you may find that you become more organised with your job, resulting in a better overall performance and a handy pay rise!


Overthinking about life is easy to do, but taking a step back and exercising helps you to think positively and reevaluate the situation, and in most cases tackle it. It’s all about having that vision that your effort will be rewarded!

So maybe go for a jog a few times a week on the treadmill or go outside and take a friend if you feel you’ll get bored or demotivated easily. Start with maybe intervals with a one-minute jog into a one-minute walk and repeat, and increase the intensity from there as your fitness improves. On the other hand, you don’t even have to run, researchers found that aerobic exercise (anywhere from low to high intensity) helps lift symptoms of depression significantly. So just a walk will brighten your mood and set your day up for success, give it a try, be consistent and you’ll notice a difference in no time!

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