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Mental health and exercise

Despite finding excuses not to exercise, deep down everyone knows that regular exercise is good for your body. I’d argue it’s actually necessary but that’s another topic.  So how many of you know that on top of all the physical health benefits exercise, has a profound effect on mental health.

And that is arguably the main reason that motivates most people to stay active and keep exercising.

Mental health benefits

So where can exercise help you when it comes to mental health?

  • It pumps up your endorphins. Physical activity helps bump up the production of your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, called endorphins. Although this function is often referred to as a runner’s high, a rousing game of tennis or a nature hike also can contribute to this same feeling.
  • It’s meditation in motion. After a fast-paced game of racquetball or several laps in the pool, you’ll often find that you’ve forgotten the day’s irritations and concentrated only on your body’s movements.
     As you begin to regularly shed your daily tensions through movement and physical activity, you may find that this focus on a single task, and the resulting energy and optimism, can help you remain calm and clear in everything you do.
  • It improves your mood. Regular exercise can increase self-confidence, it can relax you, and it can lower the symptoms associated with mild depression and anxiety. Exercise can also improve your sleep, which is often disrupted by stress, depression and anxiety. All of these exercise benefits can ease your stress levels and give you a sense of command over your body and your life.


Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year.

Resistance exercise training significantly improves anxiety symptoms among both healthy participants and participants with a physical or mental illness. Improvements were not moderated by sex (Gordon et al., 2017).


The NIMH estimates that in the United States, 16 million adults had at least one major depressive episode in 2012. That’s 6.9 percent of the population. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression.

The meta-analyses of correlational and experimental studies reveal positive effects of exercise, in healthy people and in clinical populations (also in patients with emotional disorders) regardless of gender and age. The benefits are significant especially in subjects with an elevated level of anxiety and depression because of more room for possible change (Guszkowska, M. 2004).


Stress is an inevitable part of life. Seven out of ten adults in the United States say they experience stress or anxiety daily, and most say it interferes at least moderately with their lives, according to the most recent ADAA survey on stress and anxiety disorders.

When the American Psychological Association surveyed people in 2008, more people reported physical and emotional symptoms due to stress than they did in 2007, and nearly half reported that their stress has increased in the past year.

It’s impossible to eliminate, but you can learn to manage stress, and most people usually do. According to a recent ADAA online poll, some 14 percent of people make use of regular exercise to cope with stress. Others reported talking to friends or family (18 percent); sleeping (17 percent); watching movies or TV (14 percent), as well as eating (14 percent) and listening to music (13 percent).

Rest and relaxation. It’s such a common expression that it has become a clich. And although rest really can be relaxing, the pat phrase causes many men to overlook the fact that exercise can also be relaxing. It’s true for most forms of physical activity as well as for specific relaxation exercises.

Exercise is a form of physical stress. Can physical stress relieve mental stress? Alexander Pope thought so: “Strength of mind is exercise, not rest.” Plato agreed: “Exercise would cure a guilty conscience.” You’ll think so, too — if you learn to apply the physical stress of exercise in a controlled, graded fashion.

mental health
Not to be taken literally


The stimulant medicines that are often used to treat adult ADHD work by increasing the availability of dopamine in the brain. So it makes sense that a workout can have many of the same effects as stimulant drugs. Fitness can have the following benefits for adults with ADHD: Ease stress and anxiety.

When you exercise, your brain releases chemicals called neurotransmitters, including dopamine, which help with attention and clear thinking. People with ADHD often have less dopamine than usual in their brain.

  • Ease stress and anxiety.
  • Improve impulse control and reduce compulsive behavior.
  • Enhance working memory.
  • Improve executive function. That’s the set of skills we need to plan, organize, and remember details.
  • Increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor. That’s a protein involved in learning and memory. It’s in short supply in people with ADHD.


PTSD is an anxiety disorder that is triggered by witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event. Although it is commonly associated with combat veterans, it also frequently affects survivors of violent personal assaults (e.g., rape, mugging, or domestic violence), childhood abuse, natural disasters, accidents and life-threatening illnesses. Cohen et al. (2009) note that 8% to 12% of all adults will suffer from PTSD at some point in their lives and with military veterans the prevalence of PTSD is 13% to 31%. Given these statistics, it is highly likely that exercise professionals in a wide variety of settings will interact with clients with PTSD. Understanding the way PTSD impacts an individual’s physical and mental health can be key to designing and implementing a successful exercise program for these clients.

The absence of a cure makes PTSD treatment a multifaceted challenge. There is emerging evidence that exercise can be a valuable component of a comprehensive PTSD treatment plan (Tsatsoulis and Fountoulakis, 2006). Low-to-moderate intensity exercise can elevate mood, reduce anxiety (Cohen and Shamus, 2009) and act as an overall stress-buffer (Tsatsoulis and Fountoulakis).

Exercise can play an important role in helping clients with PTSD to recover and regain confidence. It also has the added benefit of addressing many of the mental health and physical health problems commonly associated with chronic PTSD, including cardiovascular disease and depression. While there may be some challenges, exercise professionals are in a unique position to provide the motivation and tools that will promote favorable change and improve their quality of life.

While there may be challenges to beginning an exercise program for those suffering from PTSD, exercise professionals are in a unique position to provide the motivation and tools that will promote favorable change and improve quality of life for these clients.


Exercise may give you a break from difficult emotions. It may distract you from painful memories or worries. Perhaps most important, exercise can improve self-esteem and help in social interaction.  It may create feelings of personal control.  With all that being said, it should not be overlooked when it comes to dealing with mental health.

  1. Gordon, B. R., McDowell, C. P., Lyons, M., & Herring, M. P. (2017). The Effects of Resistance Exercise Training on Anxiety: A Meta-Analysis and Meta-Regression Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Sports Medicine, 1-12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28819746 
  2. Guszkowska, M. (2004). Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood. Psychiatria polska38(4), 611-620. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15518309
  3. Whitworth, J. W., & Ciccolo, J. T. (2016). Exercise and post-traumatic stress disorder in military veterans: a systematic review. Military medicine181(9), 953-960. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27612337

Author: Ivan Vlahinić

I am not a scientist. But i don’t have to be a scientist to be able to deftly use the scientific method in your daily life. In fact, you can be one helluva ‘thinker’ (in the scientific sense) and not be a scientist. For instance, nutritionists and personal trainers like me, who use and embrace science and the scientific method are better trainers because of it. Why? Because rather than just being a parrot and telling my clients what to do, because that’s what I have been told when I was younger I understand the "why" of my advice. And if I dont? Then I fully admit that i don't, and that's fine. The more you learn in the field of fitness and nutrition, the more you realize there is a lot of stuff that you dont know. But this is something that is true of all fields of work or life. The scientific method is the single most powerful way of thinking, that's why I embrace it. Anecdotes are nice, but data and facts trumps anecdotes.

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