The Surprising Ways Exercising Boosts Your Mental Health

Most of the conversation surrounding exercise stems around the physical benefits. However, exercise has been proven to have significant benefits to your mental health as well.

mental health and working out
Exercising significantly reduces symptoms of various mental illnesses.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, about 1 in 5 adults are affected by an anxiety disorder in the United States and Major Depressive Disorder is the leading cause of disability of those aged 15 to 44.3.  

A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that just one hour of exercise a week may help prevent depression. The study followed 22,000 healthy Norwegian adults without symptoms of anxiety or depression over the course of about 11 years. Those who began the study stating they did not exercise were 44 percent more likely to become depressed, compared to those who exercised at least 1 to 2 hours a week.

While anxiety, depression and other mental disorders should be discussed with a professional, exercise can help alleviate some of the symptoms, such as stress, these disorders cause.

With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, here are 8 ways exercise can improve your mental health.


Reduces stress hormones and increases endorphins

Endorphins are the feel-good hormones your body creates and release when you exercise, among other activities. Exercising will trigger your body to release endorphins, in turn, making you feel happier and less stressed. While increasing your endorphins, exercise also reduces stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol.

Acts as a type of meditation

Exercise has the ability to give your brain a break. It can function as a type of meditation because focusing on your body’s repetitive movements will help you forget all of the day’s problems and worries.

Improves your mood

Regular exercise can relax you, improve your sleep, increase your self-confidence, and relieve some of the symptoms associated with mild depression and anxiety, all of which lower your stress levels. You can feel the effects of an improved mood just five minutes after moderate exercise.

Feel more energized

Exercising causes your body to function better so you have more oxygen fueling your body’s cells. More oxygen fueling your body’s cells means fewer aches and pains and increased strength. As a result, you can go through your daily activities feeling less fatigued, stressed and weary.

Improve memory, thinking skills

Researchers say one new case of dementia is detected every four seconds globally. Exercise reduces the risk of developing dementia based on cardiovascular illness. It helps both directly and indirectly. Directly, exercise reduces insulin resistance, inflammation, and stimulates the release of growth factors, chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells. Indirectly, exercise improves mood and sleep, which reduces stress and anxiety.

A study done at the University of British Columbia found that regular aerobic exercise appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the area in the brain involved in verbal memory and learning. Resistance training, balance and muscle toning did not yield the same results.

Additionally, studies suggest that the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex – the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory – have a greater volume in people who exercise compared to those that do not.

Increased hippocampal health

As previously stated, aerobic exercise increases the size of the hippocampus. According to Psychology Today, evidence suggests that exercise leads to the creation of new hippocampal neurons, also known as neurogenesis. Reduced neurogenesis may be associated with mental health conditions.

Improves self-image

As you begin to notice your body changing, whether that be shedding pounds, gaining muscle, or both, your self-image will improve.

Improves sleep

Sleep is hard to come by when your mind is racing. Your body could be screaming for sleep while your mind does continuous laps. Exercise improves and normalizes your sleep schedule, which has protective effects on the brain. Specifically, it regulates your circadian cycle, helping you fall asleep more quickly and improving your sleep quality.

However, do not exercise too close to sleeping, as exercise releases hormones such as endorphins that can create additional activity in the brain. Exercise also increases your core temperature. Elevation in core temperature tells the body it’s time to be awake.

Engaging in just 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise may trigger a change in sleep quality as soon as that night, according to John Hopkins Medicine.


No worthwhile, long-lasting mental health fix comes overnight. Three or more sessions per week of aerobic exercise or resistance training, at 45 to 60 minutes per session, will benefit your mental health. Full effects will most likely be noticed after about four weeks and should be continued for at least 10 to 12 weeks for the greatest effects. Additionally, just five minutes of aerobic exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

If you believe you suffer from a mental health condition, speak to your doctor.