Why exercise is essential to improving your mental health

Why exercise is essential to improving your mental health

10 min read


30 May 2023

Things you’ll learn in this blog

Exercising is not just about maintaining a good physical appearance, and it's certainly not just a tool to help you achieve specific athletic goals: it's so much more than that.

Of course, looking good and being healthy is a significant benefit of exercise, but it also has the important, and often overlooked benefit of being vital for our mental health. 

Regular exercise can help us improve our mental state, reducing crippling conditions such as depression, anxiety, and stress.

Most of us live fast-paced lives filled with work deadlines, family commitments and stress-inducing bills to pay, so it can be hard to find time for ourselves and make exercising a regular part of our routine. 

Taking time out each day to move your body is essential if you want to feel energized, relaxed, and content with your life. 

There are various reasons why exercise can impact our mental health, making it a fantastic tool for improving mood and general well-being. 

Here's a look at how regular exercise and physical activity can improve things, other tips about adding it to your life, and the best exercises you should consider. 

Can exercise help boost your mental health?

Most people know that exercising has many physical benefits, like improving cardiovascular health, boosting muscle mass, and helping us become more balanced and flexible. The mental benefits are often overlooked and treated as an afterthought. 

Regular exercise can make us feel more fulfilled, calmer, and happier while tackling anxiety and depression. Exercise can improve our cognitive function, making us perform better when dealing with mental tasks. 

There are many reasons for this improvement in mood and mental health. 

The first is that exercise elicits an increased production of endorphins. This is an important chemical, and it numbs feelings of stress and can also be a pain reliever. It also helps us feel a sense of achievement and often euphoria, which is why it's described as the 'happy hormone.' Exercising to help you create more of this chemical can help tackle anxiety, depression and other negative moods and feelings, giving you more positive mental health. 

This increase in positive chemicals can make us see and interpret the world or certain situations differently, seeing the positives more clearly and helping us deal with difficult situations. All you need is a little dedication and effort for a short amount of time daily to achieve this effect. 

Studies have shown that 30 minutes of moderate exercise can release these endorphins, giving us that positive rush of emotions. Aim for three or four days of movement each week for the most benefit to your mental well-being - it doesn't need to be super strenuous, just something that gets your heart rate up. 

Another way that exercise boosts mental health is that it improves cognitive function. 

This is because exercise increases the blood flow around your body, including your brain. As more blood pumps to the brain, more neurons are fired off in your brain, which can cause cell growth in vital areas, including the hippocampus, which regulates learning and memory. 

Cell growth in this brain area can make you more focused, helping you perform better in certain tasks. 

How does the feeling of progress in exercise improve mental health? 

If you're struggling with feelings of low self-esteem or depression, then the mental benefits of exercise can help boost your mood and make you look at yourself in a healthier light. 

This is because exercise can help create a feeling of progress and purpose, which many mentally low people are missing. When you exercise, each session and activity is a step towards a better you. Sticking to a routine and exercise schedule can help you improve physically, which translates to mental improvement too. 

For example, if you try running for the first time, you may only be able to run a kilometer before getting too tired to carry on. 

After a few weeks of sticking at it, you may have the capability to run a bit further or run 1K at a faster pace. This shows progress and is mentally rewarding, helping you feel more motivated and better about yourself, which can positively affect your mental health. 

Just be aware that to have any meaningful progress, it's essential to have goals and a plan in place. 

Having these things mapped out will help you stay focused on the larger vision and make steady progress toward reaching your ultimate objective. Creating an end goal gives your exercise a purpose and improves motivation, which can positively affect your mental health. Outlining each step means knowing what you need to do as well as when and how, which can be incredibly powerful in setting yourself up for success.

To get the best mental benefits of goal setting with your exercise, ensure you reach a manageable level and set yourself up for success. 

Your goals should be challenging but attainable and not too difficult or easy to achieve. For example, if you're a new runner, setting a goal of running a 10K in under 45 minutes might be a stretch. Start smaller, and set a goal of completing a 5K, then increase your goals as you improve. 

This feeling of progress can boost your mood and gives the exercise purpose that might motivate you further and make you feel better about yourself, improving self-worth and other aspects of your mental health. 

How other types of exercise can benefit mental health

Exercising your brain can come in many forms and shouldn't be strictly physical. Scientific research shows that exercises such as solving puzzles, playing mental games, practicing mindful meditation and engaging with emotionally charged tasks are some of the most effective for stimulating neural pathways, which can improve brain function and help you focus better at work or improve your memory. 

This mental training helps keep the brain healthy and maintains cognitive flexibility. With a few simple activities designed to challenge different parts of our minds, we can help strengthen our mental health while building valuable skills to support us through life. 

Incorporate more mental activities into your routine alongside physical exercises to boost your mental health. It helps keep your mind sharp and protects against serious mental illnesses such as dementia and other conditions where the brain deteriorates. 

Some of these activities can also boost concentration and overall mood as well. 

Examples of these activities include: 

  • Crosswords 
  • Soduku 
  • Quizzes 
  • Puzzles

How to incorporate physical activity into your routine

Finding ways to incorporate physical activity into your life doesn't have to be a chore or a hassle. 

Plenty of options can quickly become part of your everyday routine, meaning that adding exercise to boost your mental health doesn't have to be a challenge. 

Some of the best ways to add exercise to your routine include: 

  • Biking, walking, or even running to work instead of driving, providing that it's close enough
  • Going for a walk during lunch breaks to get the blood pumping. Furthermore, walking helps improve digestion, making you feel better and healthier as the day progresses.
  • Committing to a group class. There's nothing more motivating than working out with other people, so joining a class may help you get the support group to keep exercising. Furthermore, the feeling of letting an instructor down by not going to the lesson can also motivate you to exercise.  
  • Making your social life more active. Instead of meeting friends for a coffee or drinks at a bar, suggest more active activities to do with your friends. You could always grab a coffee to go and walk around your area or invite them to play activities like tennis, squash, or football for an active and social hit. 
  • Trying home workouts. There are various online tutorials for you to get a home workout that meets your fitness levels. If you can't commit to a gym, being able to do some bodyweight exercises at home is a much simpler way to get active. Plus, as you memorize the routines, you could start to do them while watching TV. 

As these examples show, adding exercise to your routine doesn't have to be difficult and can easily fit into even the most congested routines. Making an effort will seriously improve your mental health. 

  • Related content: How to lose weight without exercise
  • The best exercises for improving mental health 

    Out of all the types of exercise and activities which you can try, one of the best that improves your general mood and that can make you happier and alleviate feelings of depression and sadness is outdoor activities. 

    Pursuits like walking, biking, outdoor jogging and hiking are some of the best things you can do for your brain and mental health. 

    Going outdoors and connecting with nature can help to reduce stress and anxiety levels by allowing you to step away from everyday life for a little while. In addition, the stimulus of outdoor environments positively benefits us. For example, greenery in a park or woodland area can make us happier. 

    The color is associated with peace, rest, refreshment and security. It psychologically puts us at ease, making activities in nature one of the best ways to combat stress and anxiety. As well as outdoor exercises, one of the best ways to improve mental health is to partake in more cardiovascular and aerobic activities. 

    This is because this exercise is best at releasing endorphins and other chemicals that make us feel happy. Some other less intensive activities, such as yoga, are also good to try, as this focuses on your breathing which can help you feel more relaxed and improve your mood, especially if you incorporate meditation into the activity. 

    Other exercises you should try to include: 

    Strength training

    Strength training is another excellent type of exercise for mental health. It’s also known as resistance training, any type of physical activity that helps build muscle mass. 

    Some examples of strength-training exercises include lifting weights, using resistance bands, and doing bodyweight exercises such as push-ups and squats. Strength training has been shown to help improve mood, reduce anxiety and depression, and increase cognitive function.

    Mindfulness-based stress reduction

    Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a mindfulness meditation that effectively reduces stress and improves mental health. 

    MBSR involves paying attention to the present moment without judgment. It can be practiced through various activities, such as yoga, Tai Chi, and walking meditation. 

    Numerous studies have shown that MBSR can help to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression while also increasing cognitive function.

    Group sports 


    Playing sports with others and working as part of a team can help you improve your mental health as you become part of a social group, which can help against negative feelings of loneliness and isolation. 

    Furthermore, group sports give you a support group and make you feel like an important part of a collective. 

    Playing as part of a group can also motivate and encourage you, making you look forward to exercise, which is a healthy attitude.

    Exercise: a tool against poor mental health. 

    Bouts of poor mental health can strike at any time and seriously affect how you live and feel about yourself. 

    Thankfully, there are actions you can take to help you feel better, with exercise being one of the most important ways to improve your mood. 

    The chemicals released by exercise go a long way in dealing with stress and anxiety. Moreover, progress and achieving fitness goals can give you better self-worth and confidence, making you feel better and more assured. 

    You are literally putting one foot in front of another and building a stronger, healthier body – which will do wonders for your mental outlook.

    When you also consider the social aspect of exercise and how it can improve your cognitive function and make you more focused and motivated, then it's clear that exercise is something you should be doing for your physical and mental health. 

    There are various ways to easily add exercise to your routine; even a short burst each day will positively affect you. 

    Find out more about exercise here:

    • 5 tips for building an effective weight loss routine
    • Exercise for gut health - 4 things you should be doing