Exercise: A Powerful Medicine for Mental Health

I’m sure we’re all already aware that exercise is good for us, specifically for our physical health, but did you know that exercise is an effective treatment for mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety?

What happens to our brain when we exercise?

When we exercise, our heart-rate increases which boosts the oxygen going to our brain. This then aids our brain in releasing a series of chemicals called endorphins. These endorphins work similarly to that of morphine, reducing pain and boosting pleasure, resulting in feelings of positive wellbeing. In addition to endorphins, there are other hormones that gives us that post-training buzz, and this is where the term ‘runners high’ originates from as the mixture of exercise-induced chemicals in our brain can cause a feeling of pure elation!

How does that benefit mental ill health?

The benefits of exercise for mental health are evident and is considered as an under-appreciated treatment for common mental illnesses. Research has shown that 20 to 40 minutes of moderate exercise, 3 times per week, can be just as effective as taking antidepressants for mild to moderate depression. Regular exercise has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, boost self-esteem and also improve sleep. Moderate aerobic exercise such as walking, jogging or cycling is better for your physical wellbeing, but even things like gardening and housework can get our endorphins going. The benefits of exercise have been shown to have long-lasting effects on our wellbeing too. A number of studies have looked at how fitness programs have significantly improved feelings of depression and anxiety, even after 12 months! So it’s well worth considering how much exercise you currently do, and if there’s any room for improvement, as your overall wellbeing will improve.

Even if you’re not particularly ‘fit’ in terms of your physical health, non-aerobic exercise such as weight training, using resistance bands and yoga has been shown to be just as effective at reducing the symptoms of depression as aerobic exercise. If you consider yourself to be unfit, do speak to your GP and start off with smaller, manageable workouts. Whatever you feel comfortable doing. As they say, the only bad workout is the one you didn’t do, so it’s okay to start off small and work your way up to 20 minutes. Just remember to be kind to yourself and be proud of every step you take.

The problem is, when your mental health is suffering, you may not feel up to exercising. A lack of motivation and feeling excessively tired are common symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression. So, for many whose mental health is suffering, the idea of getting up and doing any form of exercise may be a struggle that is too much to bear. Finding other ways to motivate yourself might help such as having a friend join you at the gym or having some exercise equipment at home, however, it’s not a simple fix. Exercise is also, by no means, a sure-fire way to rid that emotional distress, so do bear in mind there are people who still need additional support and interventions such as medication or therapy and this is absolutely okay too. Talk to your GP if you’re finding that exercise is not making much difference to your mental health and they’ll talk you through your options.

It’s so important to exercise for your physical health, but even adding a little more movement into your life can help you feel happier and healthier. Get out those running shoes, treat yourself to some resistance bands or even have a boogie to your favourite song. Your brain and your body will thank you for it!


Ellice Whyte
Mindset Mental Health