The Vital Link: Exercise & Mental Health

The link between mental health and exercise is extremely important, and something that is overlooked by many as an incentive for working out. Studies have shown that working out is beneficial for almost every aspect of mental health and cognitive ability. This article goes over the science behind these benefits and how you can start incorporating exercise for mental wellbeing into your daily routine. 


Exercise and Mental Health: how do these two work together?

Overall, any kind of exercise and movement improves mental health. Working out releases the feel good neurotransmitters endorphins & serotonin into the brain. It aids in stress relief and resilience to stressors and has been shown to reduce depression and anxiety symptoms.


Exercise improves mental capacity, our ability to concentrate, learn, and remember. Although it may seem counterintuitive, working out increases energy so you can achieve more during your day. If you feel low energy, try working out and see for yourself. Working out also improves self esteem by creating the opportunity to take control over yourself, get through something difficult and feel accomplished. 


Though all exercise is good for mental health, harder exercise or exercise that forces you to learn a skill helps with resilience and grit. A well programmed resistance training program with progressive overload incorporates learning and mastering a skill, while pushing your body to do something hard. A meta analysis looked at resistance training with youth and found that Resistance training has a positive effect on self-efficacy, perceived physical strength, physical self-worth, and global self-worth.


Exercise & Stress

Sometimes life can get overwhelming. The key to solid mental health is the ability to handle stress and to manage it, and a huge part of having the natural resilience to manage it comes from physical activity. Having an increased heart rate and higher blood pressure while working out mimics the physical side effects of sympathetic nervous system activation, fight or flight. Cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine levels increase with exercise (the key hormones and neurotransmitters related to fight or flight), and return to a baseline after the workout is complete. This means that working out gives the body short bursts of stress, allowing the body to gain physical adaptations to stress, which translates to better handling of more intense life stressors. In fact, working out when you’re stressed allows your nervous system the opportunity to release and regulate itself. Studies have found that regular exercisers are more resistant to the emotional effects of acute stress. 


Exercising for Mental Health

A meta analysis published in 2024 looked at 218 unique studies and found that exercise tended to be about as effective for treating depression and anxiety as medications and cognitive behavioral therapy. Combining exercise with antidepressants tended to improve symptoms more than medication alone. The more intense a workout is, the more effective it is at managing depression. The results from another study found that walking, jogging, yoga, and strength training are more effective at treating depression than other exercises. 


What exercises are best for mental health?

All exercise is beneficial for mental health. Movement is the important thing. Most people don’t move enough, which is a big contributor to anxiety and depression. If you look back to our ancestral past, our bodies are meant to move, which is why sweating is intertwined with our mental wellbeing.  


How to feel active when don’t feel up to it

Don’t wait to feel motivated or inspired, you just have to start. Start with something easy, like going for a walk. Add routine to it by scheduling time in the morning or on your lunch break at work. Start with 10 minutes of whatever movement you’re doing. You’ll be pleasantly surprised when you wind up working out more than 10 minutes. Creating habits anyways trumps relying on willpower. Setting up a regular time to workout is one of the best ways to create a positive habit. There are also little things you can do to get some physical activities, like parking in the back of the parking lot, talking the stairs, and commuting by bike. 


Get up and move to Improve Mental Health

If movement in general is what is so effective for mental wellbeing, you have full creative freedom. Try walking the dog, dancing, gardening, hiking, biking, swimming, lifting, yard work, chores, etc. Just get moving!


Want to learn more about the vital link between mental health and exercise? Listen The Stronger Than Your Boyfriend Podcast Episode 183 – Stress to Strength: Mental Health and Exercise 


Does your warmup need some help? Get your free training primers guide here.


Sources Cited:

Deighton, K., Barry, R., Connon, C. E., & Stensel, D. J. (2014). Appetite, gut hormone and energy intake responses to low volume sprint interval and traditional endurance exercise. Frontiers in Physiology, 5, 161.

Falagas, M. E., Betsi, G. I., & Athanasiou, S. (2019). Probiotics for prevention of recurrent urinary tract infections in women: A review of the evidence from microbiological and clinical studies. Therapeutic Advances in Urology, 11, 1756287219859984.

Thoma, J. A., Unsal, A. B., Thoma, M. E., Wilson, D. L., & Wood, H. (2023). The effectiveness of digital health interventions to reduce depressive symptoms in adolescents: A systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ, 384, e075847.

Morales, R. R., Molina-Rodríguez, J. C., Vela-Bueno, A., & García-Borreguero, D. (2022). Prevalence of restless legs syndrome/Willis-Ekbom disease in a primary care setting: A Spanish cross-sectional study. PLoS ONE, 17(9), e0275303.

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