Exercise and your Mental Health

The physical benefits of exercise have been researched and promoted for many years, whilst the mental health benefits are not nearly publicized and discussed as much.

The physical benefits you receive from exercise include, but are not limited to the following: improved fitness, increased muscle strength, reduced cholesterol, improved blood pressure, reduced blood sugar levels, pain reduction, weight loss, and management of chronic conditions. Exercise can also reduce the chance of developing a cognitive condition such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, with the latest research proposing you’re 82% more likely to develop a cognitive condition such as Alzheimer’s if you are physically inactive.

Exercise doesn’t only provide physical benefits though. Physical exercise can also work to prevent or reduce the chances of developing a mental health disorder.

This is so important because Australians living with mental illness are 2-3 times more likely to be living with diabetes and 4 times more likely to have cardiovascular disease. This relationship exists due to the poor lifestyle people with mental illness have, such as poor diet and lack of physical activity. 1 in 5 Australians experience a mental illness within their lifetime, and it’s important that the mental health benefits associated with regular physical activity be promoted and discussed. 1, 2

Physical and mental health changes- what are they?

Changes to the body occur whilst exercising and following a bout of exercise. These changes can be related to physiological (physical) and psychological (mental) factors. Physiological changes that can occur with exercise include; the release of endorphins, which are chemicals that are released into your brain which make you feel good and happy. The psychological benefits that come from exercise include: reducing stress levels, increasing self-confidence, improving symptoms of depression as well as anxiety. Exercise can also help to improve your memory and ability to learn new tasks, as well as improving your sleep patterns. The latest research demonstrates that these psychological improvements can be experienced after 20-40 minutes of moderate physical activity a day.

Exercise has proven to improve depressive symptoms for people with mild to moderate depression. Partaking in regular physical activity for people with depression has been demonstrated to be as affective as anti depressant medication – without all the nasty side effects. Regular exercise can help to improve neural growth within the brain as well as reducing inflammation. Inflammation and inflammatory disorders such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease, are associated with mood disorders and poor mental health outcomes. Reducing inflammation by taking part in regular physical activity can therefore improve your mental health, mood and overall well-being.

Exercise can also help with anxiety and stress, by relieving muscle tightness within your body. Research has shown that regular physical activity can also benefit people who have attention deficit disorders. Being active helps to improve your attention span. The way this works is that the brain produces chemicals (dopamine, norepinepherine and seratonin) when you exercise which are responsible for improving concentration levels, motivation as well as your overall mood. 3

What type of physical activity is the best for improving your mental health?

To achieve the mental health benefits associated with exercise, you should partake in at least 30 mins of moderate physical activity most days of the week. This adds up to at least 150 mins/week, which is recommended by the World Health Organization 4. What does moderate physical activity look like? It involves increasing your heart rate to a point where you feel a little breathless and cannot hold a full conversation without taking a breath. Different types of activities can help you achieve this which include are not limited to: going for a jog, resistance training, mowing the lawn, playing tennis, general gardening, walking briskly, bike riding and house work e.g. washing windows.

Barriers to exercise and how to best overcome them

When you are just starting to be more physically active you do not need to rush into it, you can start small and work your way up to 30 mins a day. This is beneficial, as it will help to reduce the chance of you becoming overwhelmed and burning out. You can also accumulate 30 mins of exercise a day by doing bouts of at least 10 minutes of exercise.

Tips to help increase your desire to exercise can include; making exercise a social activity, get your friends and family involved, picking an activity you enjoy, set a challenge for yourself which will make you want to achieve it. This will make it more fun and enjoyable, rather than feeling like exercise is a chore. You can also schedule in exercise to when it best suits you e.g. before work. Exercise has proven to increase you concentration, which will help with productivity throughout your workday.

The mental health benefits of exercise are vast and varied.

People with chronic conditions as well as people with mental health conditions can experience these mental health benefits. Regular physical activity can alleviate symptoms related to mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. It’s recommended that people of all ages and abilities exercise regularly, as it can help to prevent cognitive impairment and mental health disorders, treat mental health conditions and improve your overall well-being and quality of life.


1. Mikkelsen, K., Stojanovska, L., Polenakovic, M., Bosevski, M., & Apostolopoulos, V. (2017). Exercise and Mental Health. Maturitas. 106, 48-56. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.maturitas.2017.09.003

2. Exercise and Mental Health. (2018). E-Book by ESSA. Date viewed 22nd August 2018. Retrieved from https://www.essa.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Exercise-Mental-Health-eBook_v6.pdf

3. Robinson, L., Segal, J., & Smith, M. (2018). The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise. Helpguide.org. Retrieved from


4.  World Health Organization. (2018). Physical Activity. Date viewed 22nd August 2018. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/physical-activity