The Connection Between Mental Health and Exercise: How to Improve Your Body and Your Mind

Exercising is one of the most meaningful ways you can support your health. While the physical benefits of exercise seem obvious, you may be surprised to hear about the positive effects it can have on your mental health.

From reducing stress to enhancing your self-esteem, regular physical activity can shape your mind in ways you may have never thought possible. Read on to discover the mental health benefits of exercise and why working out can improve not just your body, but also your mind.

two women working out outside

The Connection Between Exercise And Mental Health

As you’ll see, exercise and mental health go hand-in-hand. Exercise isn’t just simply about gaining muscle, losing fat, and improving your cardiovascular health.

People who exercise regularly are often motivated to do so because it provides them with a profound sense of well-being. When you exercise, your brain and pituitary glands produce neurotransmitters called endorphins. These are those happy chemicals that get you back to the gym each and every time.

Endorphins are also known as nature’s painkillers, which tend to block the discomfort of exercise all while bringing about feelings of euphoria and happiness. Exercise can help you feel more energetic throughout the day and also acts as a powerful remedy for those facing many common mental health challenges.

Three women having a work meeting

Mental Health Benefits Of Exercise

In case you’re ever feeling a lack of motivation to exercise, here are several ways exercise can actually brighten your day.

Stress relief

Exercise, simply put, is one of the most powerful stress relievers. While stress may remain an inevitable part of life, you can learn how to combat the effects of stress by engaging in some type of physical activity you love.

Working out can help lower the stress hormone cortisol, all while producing feel-good endorphins. This combination can provide a sense of calm, which in turn, can reduce stress.

One 2021 study found that exercise during a stressful exam week was shown to immediately reduce stress and enhance focus among the study participants.

Mom and two kids playing outside with a soccer ball

Reduces symptoms of depression

Regular exercise is not only a wonderful mood booster, current research has shown that it may also help ease symptoms of depression. 

Exercise increases the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate your mood. By increasing serotonin levels, exercise can help you feel more positive, energized, hopeful, and in turn, less depressed.

A 2019 study found that people who regularly engage in physical activity have consistently lower symptoms of depression. The good news: you don’t have to train for a marathon or spend hours in the gym to help reduce your risk of depression.

In fact, one recent systematic review and meta-analysis found that even small amounts of exercise like walking briskly can significantly lower your risk of depression. The research found that adults who participated in some type of physical activity for at least 75 minutes each week had an 18% lower risk of depression compared with people who didn’t exercise at all. 

Moreover, adults who participated in some type of physical activity for at least 2 ½ hours each week had a 25% lower risk of depression. So the more you do, the more benefits you’ll see, but every little bit counts!

woman working out with a personal trainer

Improves anxiety symptoms

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a whopping 31.1% of U.S. adults experience some type of anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Thankfully, research has continuously shown that engaging in some type of exercise can help combat various symptoms of anxiety.

Exercise can release feel-good chemicals within your brain that enhance your sense of well-being. Additionally, engaging in physical activity can serve as a helpful distraction that can ease your mind’s worries.

Studies show that regular moderate exercise, whether it be high-impact or low-impact, can help reduce symptoms of anxiety, leaving you more resilient and energized.

a group of five friends sitting and enjoying food and wine

Enhances cognitive function

By increasing the blood flow to your brain, exercise can help enhance cognitive functioning, which leads to improved memory, focus, and attention. 

Exercise can reduce inflammation and support healthy blood flow to your brain. It does this by encouraging the production of new blood vessels in your brain all while improving the health of existing blood vessels.

One 2018 study noted that regular exercise can actually prompt structural changes within your brain, including increased gray matter. This is a good thing, as your gray matter is responsible for higher-level brain functions involved in learning and memory.

woman reading a book on the couch

Boosts self-esteem

When you engage in physical activity, you’ll often feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in your achievement. Whether it’s taking a walk when you’re less than motivated or lifting heavier weights, setting and achieving your fitness goals can significantly boost your confidence and self-esteem.

Research has also shown that physical activity is strongly linked with higher self-esteem among children, adolescents, and middle-aged adults. So the things you do and the routines you create can benefit your family.

three women throwing their hands in the air outside

The Bottom Line

As you can see, exercise plays a vital role in maintaining your physical and mental fitness. From reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression to enhancing brain functioning, exercise can help you feel more relaxed and prepared to tackle the demands of everyday life.

While exercise is not a substitute for mental health treatment, it remains a low-risk and effective intervention in supporting your emotional and cognitive well-being.

Follow Nutriology on Instagram and check out the Nutriology blog for workouts, recipes, and healthy lifestyle tips that you can incorporate into your life.

Emily Hirsch, MS, RD

Written by Emily Hirsch, MS, RD

Emily has over a decade of experience in the field of nutrition. In her writing, she strives to bring lackluster research on health and nutrition topics to life. She loves writing about GI health and women’s issues. Find her at:


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