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The Mental Health Benefits of Physical Exercise

The Mental Health Benefits of Physical Exercise

Physical exercise can play an important role in mental well-being and can even relieve symptoms of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. While the physical health benefits of exercise are frequently discussed, the link between exercise and mental health is often overlooked. Studies suggest that physical exercise may help ward off mental health problems before they start. Research also shows exercise can improve the symptoms of many existing mental illnesses.

How Mental Health Benefits From Physical Exercise

Mental health professionals sometimes prescribe exercise as part of the treatment for specific mental illnesses. Some of the potential mental health effects of exercise include:

Anxiety and Stress

Exercise decreases sensitivity to the body's reaction to anxiety. Additionally, a regular exercise program can help ease symptoms of other common co-occurring conditions, such as ​irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Exercise helps promote the growth of new neurons in key areas of the brain, including the hippocampus. Some research suggests that this may play a role in relieving symptoms of some psychiatric conditions including depression and anxiety. Animal studies have found that increased neurogenesis may play a role in calming the brain during times of stress.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Exercise may improve motor skills and executive function for children with ADHD. This seems to apply to both moderate and vigorous exercise, and exercising for a longer period may lead to better results. Cardio seems to be particularly beneficial for children and adults with ADHD.


Light, moderate, and vigorous exercise have been shown to reduce the severity of depression. Exercise may be as effective as other treatments for depression.8 It's possible that regular workouts reduce inflammation, which has a positive effect on people with this condition.

Panic Disorder

For people with panic disorder, exercise can be a proactive way to release pent-up tension and reduce feelings of fear and worry. Exercise may also decrease the intensity and frequency of panic attacks in some cases.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Physical activity may be beneficial for people with PTSD, especially those who have previously struggled with treatment and those with subthreshold PTSD. Exercise may also help PTSD symptoms like depression, anxiety, sleep issues, and cardiovascular problems. How Exercise Promotes Positive Well-Being Exercise can also be used to enhance well-being in people who already feel mentally healthy. Increased physical activity has been found to enhance mood, improve energy levels, and promote quality sleep. There are several reasons why physical activity can be good for psychological well-being:

  • Exercise decreases stress hormones. Exercise decreases stress hormones like cortisol. It also increases endorphins—your body's "feel-good" chemicals—giving your mood a natural boost.

  • Physical activity distracts you from negative thoughts and emotions. Physical activity can take your mind off of your problems and either redirect it to the activity at hand or get you into a zen-like state.

  • Exercise promotes confidence. Exercise can help you lose weight, tone your body, and maintain a healthy glow and a smile. You may feel a subtle but significant boost in your mood as your clothes look more flattering and you project an aura of increased strength.

  • Exercise can be a good source of social support. The benefits of social support are well-documented, and many physical activities can also be social activities. So whether you join an exercise class or you play softball in a league, exercising with others can give you a double dose of stress relief.

  • Better physical health may mean better mental health. While stress can cause illness, illness can also cause stress. Improving your overall health and longevity with exercise can save you a great deal of stress in the short run (by strengthening your immunity to colds, the flu, and other minor illnesses) and the long run (by helping you stay healthier longer, and enjoy life more because of it).

  • Exercise provides a buffer against stress. Physical activity may be linked to lower physiological reactivity toward stress. Simply put, those who get more exercise may become less affected by the stress they face. So, in addition to all the other benefits, exercise may supply some immunity toward future stress as well as a way to cope with current stress.


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