The Benefits of Exercise for Mental Health

Exercise has many many physical benefits but the mental positives are huge too. Whether you use long steady cardio sessions to process your thoughts, or a blast of high intensity training to clear your mind of anything but how hard the exercise is, you can get your mind in great shape alongside your body.

So why does it work?

At the most basic level, being physically fitter and more comfortable with your body can be a great boost to self esteem and help you feel more confident in all situations. If you are unhappy with how your body is (either what it can physically do or how it looks) then using exercise to do something about it gives you control over the situation and helps boost self efficacy.

The same goes for stress caused by other life events. For example when my father died it would have been easy to use that as an excuse not to exercise. I had shut myself away from a lot of social situations as I couldn't face the effort of talking to people, but I would still go out and run. Not with a watch or a goal in mind but just to focus on something else and do something positive. Inevitably the mind would come back to Dad and occasionally I would stop and shed a few tears but then I would carry on. I have always found the mental processing that comes with long slow runs helpful. The other aspect of stress is the tense state we tend to hold our bodies in. By exercising and improving the bodies circulation, this can decrease the tension and allow the muscles to relax.

You might have heard the phrase 'you rarely regret a workout' which is generally true. Once you have forced yourself out of the door you will tend to feel better for exercising than worse. The endorphin (happy hormone) release that comes after exercise is a powerful mood enhancer that gives you the 'exercise high'.

As much as you might like to 'zone out' during exercise, there is some evidence to support staying present during exercise can increase the benefits and sharpen the mind. This has been seen to boost performance in mental games and prevent cognitive decline in cases of Alzheimer's.

The mental processing that exercise can offer can help to clear the mind when it comes to sleep time. As well as feeling tired, the temperature changes your body experiences can signal that it's sleep time when it starts to cool down again.

Exercise is now officially prescribed by doctors for patients with depression and anxiety. This is supported by a number of studies which have seen depression and anxiety symptoms decrease in those who exercise more. As little as 2x30mins a week has seen an effect.

Whilst there is a rare dark side to using exercise to support your mental health (see my article on exercise addiction here), the benefits are enormous. As well as the numerous physical benefits, exercise is one of the best things for your mind. If you are in a situation where your mental health feels like a road block to getting into exercise, start with very small targets and build up from there. Even just going for a walk can have good benefits on mental health so don't feel that it has to be an all out boxing session to get the good effects. So no matter what you are going through if you can muster the strength to do something physical, you will get the double effect of boosting your mental well-being too.




  • Conn, V.S. (2010). Anxiety outcomes after physical activity interventions: meta-analysis findings. Nursing Research, 59 (3), 224–231

  • Department of Health (2011). “UK physical activity guidelines.” Available at: [Accessed on 04/11/15].

  • Martinez, J.T. (2014). Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. In: A. Clow & S. Edmunds (eds.). Physical activity and mental health. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

  • Rimer, J., Dwan, K., Lawlor, D., Greig, C., McMurdo, M., Morley, W. & Mead, G.E. (2012). Exercise for depression. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. Contract No.: Art. No.: CD004366

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