Exercise and Mental Health

Exercise has a well-established connection with mental health and can be a powerful tool for improving mental wellbeing. Research demonstrates that exercising regularly has positive effects on mental wellbeing and it can aid recovery from common psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety and stress.

In this blog, we explore the neurobiological mechanisms of exercise, the cognitive benefits, and its role in managing common mental health conditions.


The Neurobiological Mechanisms of Exercise

Exercise exerts positive effects on mental health through various neurobiological mechanisms.

  • Mood enhancement can occur via the release of endorphins, and boosts in Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which can improve both mood and cognitive function.
  • Exercise can promote neuroplasticity – the growth of new neurons – particularly in the hippocampus, which is a brain region associated with learning and memory processes.
  • Importantly, exercise regulates cortisol release, enhances neurotransmitter availability (such as serotonin and dopamine), and modulates brain connectivity. All of these can contribute to stress reduction and improved emotional regulation.

Exercise and Neurotransmitters: The Chemical Messengers in the Brain

Exercise influences various neurotransmitters – the chemical messengers in the brain – contributing to mental health benefits.

  • Endorphins, often referred to as the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters (such as serotonin and dopamine) are elevated post-exercise, which can improve mood, motivation and reduce pain.
  • BDNF supports the growth and maintenance of neurons, while norepinephrine can enhance focus and the stress response.
  • Endocannabinoids are thought to lead to post-exercise euphoria known as the ‘runner’s high’.
  • Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) can promote relaxation, while glutamate, which is involved in memory and learning is modulated by exercise.


Exercise and Mental Health

Exercise and Cognitive Function

Exercise enhances brain health by improving blood flow and promoting the growth of new neurons. Physical activity enhances cognitive function via increases in BDNF levels which can improve emotional stability and memory.

Exercise (especially vigorous intensity exercise) can increase the size of the hippocampus, a brain structure critical for memory, with longer sessions having a more significant effect.

Aerobic exercise has been shown to increase hippocampal volume in older adults, resulting in improvements in spatial memory.

Exercise and Depression

Exercise can offer several significant benefits for individuals with depression, both in terms of symptom management and overall mental well-being. Exercise can improve mood, reduce depressive symptoms, increase neurotransmitter levels, enhance stress reduction, improve sleep, boost self-esteem, and can offer social interaction.

Engaging in 30-60 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (like brisk walking, cycling, or swimming) 3-5 times a week can aid the treatment of depression. Long-term engagement in regular exercise can prevent future depressive episodes or reduce their severity, making it both a preventive measure and a treatment option for depression.

Exercise and Anxiety

Exercise can reduce anxiety symptoms in both clinical and non-clinical populations. Aerobic and resistance exercises significantly reduce anxiety symptoms by triggering endorphin release, reducing stress hormone production, enhancing cognitive function, regulating biological responses, improving sleep, promoting social interaction, and fostering mind-body connections.

Both moderate-intensity aerobic activities and mindfulness-based exercises can be effective treatments for anxiety disorders. Aiming for 2-3 exercise sessions per week, each lasting 30-60 minutes, can be beneficial.

Exercise and Stress

There is a bidirectional relationship between exercise and stress, with regular physical activity buffering against the physiological and psychological effects of stress. Exercise can reduce stress responses by enhancing cardiovascular health, reducing inflammation, modulating neurotransmitter levels, promoting neurogenesis, and improving emotional regulation. Psychological benefits of exercise can include distraction from negative thoughts and increased self-esteem.

To help buffer stress, it can be beneficial to aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week, along with muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days per week.

Exercise and Self-Esteem

Exercise can enhance self-esteem by improving body image and providing a sense of achievement. Regular exercise helps to tone and strengthen the body, maintain healthy posture, and can foster a positive perception of one’s body. Accomplishing fitness goals or mastering new exercises can promote a sense of competence and accomplishment, contributing to self-esteem.



Exercise positively benefits mental health through its mood and neuroplasticity enhancement. Cognitive benefits can include improved brain health with improvements to memory and emotional regulation.

Regular and consistent exercise can both help prevent depression and anxiety symptoms and reduce their severity, aiding in the management of common mental health disorders.

Exercise acts as a stress buffer and can promote a healthy sense of body and self-esteem.   Exercise offers one of the most accessible and effective strategies for enhancing and protecting both our physical and mental well-being.



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The information provided in this document is general in nature and is intended to be used for information purposes only. While we have tried to ensure the accuracy of the information published, no guarantee can be given that the information is free from error or omission or that it is accurate, current or complete.

The information published is not, and should not be relied on as, health or treatment advice. The diagnosis and treatment of any mental illness requires the attention of a physician or other properly qualified mental health professional. If you are seeking diagnosis or treatment of any other mental illness, you should consult a physician or mental health professional. You should not delay in seeking, or disregard, professional health advice because of something you have read in this document.