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What Are the Mental Health Benefits of Exercise?

Caitlin Goodwin DNP, RN has 14 years of nursing experience and is a collegiate educator.

Improve Your Mental Health

Everywhere you look, you see headlines touting the physical health benefits of a regular exercise program. However, regular physical activity has significant effects on both physical and mental health.

With more than 25 percent of Americans declining to participate in any form of physical activity, it is important to find an exercise program that will work for you. Start a fitness routine that will improve your mind and body.

Where Do I Start?

When engaging in a new fitness program, it is important to jump in. The program does not have to be intense to be effective. In fact, it may be best to start small and gradually increase the intensity of the physical activity.

An excellent way to start a new fitness program is by participating in shorter, enjoyable activities, especially if you have a mood disorder. Mood disorders include conditions like anxiety, depression, or stress.

  • Start with 15 to 30 minutes of moderate physical activity each day is an amazing first goal with incredible health benefits. The ultimate goal is to build up to 30 to 60 minutes three to five times per week. That’s 120 to 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week.
  • Do exercises that you enjoy! Regularly exercising can be difficult if you are not already in the habit. Exercise like walking the dog, dance class, or walking through the mall may be an appropriate starting place.
  • Schedule the activity at the time of day that you have the most energy. For those who are a morning person, put those tennis shoes by the bed to get out the door right after waking. If you are a night owl, find a yoga class in the evening to help unwind before falling asleep. If you are motivated to exercise, it will increase the likelihood that you continue on with your fitness program.
  • Partner with a workout buddy. Having a fitness friend can encourage exercise on the days you may normally snooze your alarm, and add additional motivation to those lackadaisical or sleepy sessions.

The most important part is to get moving. As soon as you start, you can begin reaping the rewards from physical activity!1

What Are the Mental Health Benefits?

The newest research shows that physical activity has a ton of health benefits. Moderate, regular exercise also positively affects a person’s mental health. Taking part in some form of physical activity provides valuable improvements to one’s psychological health. There are a plethora of mental health benefits associated with a moderately intense, consistent exercise program.

The simple act of exercise includes many advantages like:

  • decreasing the severity of mood disorders,
  • improving overall self-esteem,
  • boosting mood,
  • alleviating anxiety,
  • improving depression symptoms, and
  • enhancing quality and amount of sleep.

When people are not overtired and irritable, signs and symptoms of depression decrease.1 Physical activity improves self-esteem and alleviates feelings of social withdrawal.2 Exercise also provides an important sense of belonging that has been shown to decrease the severity of mood disorders.3

Does Exercise Help Children With Autism?

Autistic children had better coordination, improved strength, and increased perceived quality of life. The results demonstrate that physical activity matters and are therapeutic for children with ASD (source).

How Does Exercise Improve My Mental Health?

The latest scientific research suggests that active people are less depressed than inactive people, even if you take all other factors out of the equation. When comparing a sugar pill, an antidepressant medication, and exercise programs, both the participants in the exercise and antidepressant groups had improved symptoms of depression!3

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In fact, the study showed that there are similar rates of relieving depression in people who exercised and those who take antidepressant medications! Months later, those in the study who were active and have since stopped show increased rates of depression when compared to those who remain active.3

The study results are clear. Frequent, moderately strenuous exercise is helpful for treating depression. But more than that, keeping up with your fitness appears to prevent a relapse into depression.

Exercise and the resulting endorphins may prevent a relapse into depression.

What Are Endorphins?

Endorphins are brain chemicals that positively boost someone’s mood and block chemicals in the brain that cause depression and anxiety. In depression, there is a chemical imbalance in the brain. Antidepressant medications can correct this condition, but endorphins also show an ability to improve signs and symptoms of depression.

Engaging in a regular fitness program should be considered an essential lifestyle change in addition to seeking advice from a professional mental health provider. Mental health providers should provide evidence-based help including lifestyle changes and therapy for individuals suffering from mental illness to improve symptoms.2


Checking out the most recent scientific research gives us plenty of current evidence to prove that physical fitness provides mental health benefits. Engaging in a physical fitness program provides many advantages, just by becoming active.

A regular exercise program has significant benefits to one’s mental health and overall wellness. It is important to care for your mind and body!


  1. Godman, H. (2016, November 29). Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills. Harvard Health Blog, 29. Retrieved from regular-exercise-changes-brain-improve-memory-thinking-skills-201404097110
  2. Sharma, Ashish, et al. (2006). Exercise for mental health. Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 8(2), 106.
  3. Weir, Kirsten. (2011). The exercise effect. American Psychological Association, 42(11), 48.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2018 Caitlin Goodwin


Caitlin Goodwin (author) from West Palm Beach, FL on January 30, 2020:

Thank you for stopping by!

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on January 24, 2020:

Nice article. Informative and useful.

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