The connection between mental and physical health and exercise is well-established, but research on exactly how exercise can improve mental health and cognitive function is lacking1. By as early as the 1980s, researchers and medical professionals have found that exercise can aid in improving sleep, promoting endurance, relieving stress, stabilizing or uplifting your mood, increasing energy, and enhancing mental acuity and alertness2,3,4,5. A growing number of studies have been conducted on exercise’s therapeutic effects on depression, anxiety, self-esteem, and overall perceived wellbeing6,7,8.
How does exercise affect the brain?
The positive effects of exercise are often discussed with one keyword—endorphins.
Endorphins are hormones that incite several physiological functions. They are often associated with mitigating the body’s pain response, but research on the role of these hormones in improving mental health is quite limited. Many articles on mental health’s relationship with exercise tout endorphin-release as a key component in improving wellbeing, but this has not been supported by research.
Does exercise actually have any impact on mental health, and if so, how?
One neuromodulator—a chemical released by neurons to “communicate” with other neurons—may be responsible for exercise’s positive impact on stress. Norepinephrine is considered to play a significant role in how the body reacts to stressful stimuli by improving the integration and responsiveness of different bodily systems9.
Researchers believe that people either become more sensitive to norepinephrine after exercise or produce more of it, both of which indicate that exercise can boost the body’s natural stress-reduction responses.
Stress and mental health
Stress and stress management play key roles in overall mental health management, including coping with depression10, anxiety11, schizophrenia12, and bipolar disorder13. Because exercise can lessen the intensity of physical stress responses while providing long-term mental benefits as a coping mechanism, it can be a great addition to any therapeutic regimen and is often “prescribed” alongside antidepressants and talk-therapy routines.
Why does it matter?
Non-pharmacological approaches to mental health management have been gaining traction in recent years as part of an overall trend toward holistic health.
Being able to implement non-pharmaceutical strategies for mental health management and improvement can empower people facing mental health difficulties when they cannot access conventional care or simply want to take a more comprehensive approach to wellness.
Even if we don’t quite understand how exercise directly influences neurochemistry, we do know that significant, positive effects have been found. Exercise can also be beneficial by simply getting you outside, which can sometimes be enough to alleviate a bad mood.
To appreciate these health benefits, you do not need to start powerlifting or running marathons. Moderate physical activity—which can include long or brisk walks, biking, dancing, sex, and yoga for at least 40 minutes a few times per week—is considered enough to produce noticeable changes.