Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 10/4/2022
We all know exercise is good for our health, promoting stronger muscles and bones, managing our weight and more.
But regular exercise is good for more than just your physical health. In fact, there’s a strong connection between exercise and mental health.
From boosting your mood and decreasing stress to helping treat mental health conditions like depression, there are multiple benefits of exercise on mental health.
We explore the relationship between exercise and mental health including the benefits.
Mental health is everything involving our psychological, social and emotional well-being and how we make choices, connect with others and handle stress.
Mental health disorders like major depression or anxiety disorder can affect your mood, thinking and behaviors.
Examples of mental health disorders can include but aren’t limited to:
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, almost one in five U.S. adults have a mental illness — nearly 52.9 million people in 2020.
Also, a World Health Organization (WHO) survey estimates that more than 50 percent of the U.S. population will be diagnosed with a mental disorder during their life.
There can be multiple causes of a mental health disorder — from a traumatic life event, feelings of loneliness, imbalanced brain chemicals or other ongoing conditions like cancer.
With so many people either already living with or potentially developing a mental health disorder, the benefits of exercise on mental health could positively impact many.
Below we’ve gone into detail about the impacts mental health and fitness have on each other.
The connection between working out and mental health is full of numerous benefits for your mood, thoughts and more.
Exercise and mental health are also connected in helping treat different mental health issues, from anxiety to depression and more.
While cognitive-behavioral therapy and medications for anxiety are typical treatments, exercise is another option to help manage anxiety symptoms.
Symptoms of anxiety in women can include:
Panic an excessive worry
Shortness of breath
Inability to stay calm
While it’s not entirely known how exercise helps relieve anxiety, one theory is that working out helps distract you from whatever is making you nervous and anxious.
Physical exercise also affects your brain chemistry by increasing certain neurotransmitters associated with anti-anxiety such as endocannabinoids and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) among others.
Endocannabinoids are a group of neurotransmitters that help regulate mood, pain and stress among other processes.
It’s also thought that endocannabinoids are the cause of the calm or euphoric feeling people get after an intense workout — also known as the “runner’s high”.
One small study found endocannabinoids increased across varying levels of workout intensity.
Another neurotransmitter affected by exercise, GABA is thought to produce a calming effect, improve sleep, relieve anxiety and reduce stress.
A 2016 study found that GABA levels increased significantly after only eight to 20 minutes of vigorous exercise.
Even less intense exercise can positively impact GABA levels.
A small controlled study found that 12 weeks of yoga practice led to increased levels of GABA overall, with significant increases immediately after practice.
Stress relief is another positive byproduct of the relationship between exercise and mental health.
Working out can reduce levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
Cortisol is a hormone that’s released when your body responds to stress after releasing “fight-or-flight” hormones like adrenaline so you stay on high alert.
When we work out — whether going through a yoga practice or heading out on a long bike ride — our body is being put under stress, which causes cortisol to be released.
However, the type and intensity of exercise affect whether our stress hormone levels increase or decrease.
One study found that cortisol levels were proportionate to the intensity of exercise, either low, moderate or high-intensity workouts.
The connection between working out and mental health can also result in helping to improve depression.
Depression is a common mental health condition, affecting 21 million U.S. adults in 2020.
Some common symptoms of a depressive disorder that last for at least two weeks are:
Persistent sad mood
Feeling hopeless or unworthy
Changes in weight or appetite
Thoughts or attempts of suicide
While typical treatments for a depressive disorder are psychotherapy or the use of an antidepressant such as sertraline, exercise has been found to help depressive symptoms.
In addition to releasing endocannabinoids and GABA, exercise also increases certain mood-enhancing neurotransmitters believed to be associated with depression, like dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine .
Dopamine is the brain chemical that’s involved with movement, motivation, mood, memory and more.
The “feel good” hormone serotonin can make you feel calmer, happier and more emotionally stable when this chemical is at normal levels.
Meanwhile, norepinephrine — also known as noradrenaline — is both a neurotransmitter and a hormone triggered by stress and increases alertness and attention, helping your body’s “fight-or-flight” response.
A review of 23 clinical trials found that exercise was an effective treatment for symptoms of depression and could be even more effective in combination with antidepressant use.
A 2018 review also found that 45 minutes of aerobic exercise (cardio such as walking, running or swimming) was an effective antidepressant treatment for a group of 455 patients.
Even running for 15 minutes a day was found to reduce the risk of major depression by 26 percent.
While aerobic exercise was found to be helpful for depression symptoms, any exercise, from yoga to weightlifting can be beneficial.
Another mental health benefit from the effects of exercise? Improved self-esteem and self-confidence.
Higher levels of physical activity have been found to correspond to higher levels of self-esteem as well as positive associations with body image in one study.
Similarly, a review of 121 studies saw that those who exercised had a more positive body image than those who didn’t work out.
Working out can give you a self-esteem boost and help you feel better about the way you look.
Working out can improve your sleep, and improved sleep can help your mental health.
Poor sleep can negatively impact or worsen many mental health conditions.
Across multiple studies, exercise was found to increase sleep duration, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and better quality sleep.
Starting an exercise program could help you sleep better at night which in turn may help your mental health.
Increasing your heart rate even a few times a week can give you more energy, helping to improve symptoms of depression like fatigue.
One study found that 90 percent of people who completed a regular exercise program had less fatigue and more energy compared to those who didn’t work out.
While not a typical first line of treatment for depression or other mood disorders, regular exercise can positively impact several different aspects of mental health.
However, if you’re struggling with mood disorders or feel you could benefit from additional treatments, our online mental health resources can help you find the right treatment.