The benefits of exercise on mental health

Discover more of our fitness guides, from how to workout at home and what to eat before you exercise, to our review of the best fitness trackers. Plus, find out how to increase your serotonin.

6 ways that exercise benefits your mental health

1. Self-esteem

Physical activity boosts self-esteem, especially when new personal skills are acquired (‘self-mastery’). This has consistently been fed back from self-report questionnaire data and can be a great distraction technique after a day of back-to-back virtual meetings.

2. Stress management

Within the last decade, there is greater societal awareness of ‘mindfulness’, encouraging our full presence within the moment and being able to make detached observations about our environment. These mindful movement techniques can be cultivated through exercises such as yoga and walking. These moments can help you reduce stress and manage difficult situations in a more productive way.

Woman practicing yoga at home on a blue yoga mat

3. Sleep

Professional sporting outfits understand how poor sleep impacts performance and recovery, but it also has an impact on your mental health. Luckily, exercising can help you sleep better. Studies have demonstrated how different forms of exercise can improve sleep efficiency (percentage of time spent asleep while in bed) – just make sure to avoid intense exercising close to bedtime.

4. Cognition

Exercise can improve working memory and ‘higher-order’ (executive) cognitive functions – a key modifiable lifestyle risk factor reducing the chances of dementia. Obviously, we can’t change our genetic risks, but there’s still a lot we can do to prevent this neurodegenerative illness. More scientific information on modifiable lifestyle risk factors in dementia can be accessed through Prof Gill Livingston’s study.

5. Depression

Exercise can be a potentially powerful antidepressant, regardless of depression intensity. It’s been shown to work well for older adults doing group exercises, reinforcing the benefits of socialising as we age.

Despite these clear benefits, the experience of depression can directly impact motivation and energy levels. Therefore, this may not be a go-to strategy for all. Also, non-regular exercisers and those with physical health conditions may require medical clearance to ensure their safety.

6. Brain biology booster

The role of exercise on brain mechanics and mental illness remains an enigma, although researchers have identified some of these key mechanisms. For example, exercise enhances key brain connections, signalling pathways and blood flow patterns. Also, it can reduce inflammation and rejuvenate brain cells (neurogenesis) and hormones.

Exercise for boosting brain power

Everything in moderation

In the wise words of Hippocrates, ‘Everything in excess is opposed to nature.’ In rare circumstances, exercise can slowly transform from a healthy, recreational hobby to that of a compulsive, behavioural addiction. Those affected may express severe guilt when not exercising and will forgo food or social events to train. Exercise addiction tends to be particularly problematic in those experiencing eating disorders, making their illness harder to treat.

You can learn more about this issue through BEAT charity resources and anyone can access help through local GP services.

Exercise as a key lifestyle factor plays an important role in optimising our mental health. Public health messaging on this topic needs to be balanced and ensure that it can be safe, accessible and appealing to all.

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Dr Amit D Mistry is a consultant sports psychiatrist, author and mental health advisor to Oxford University Sport. He is a frontline NHS clinician working in eating disorders. You can follow him on @DrAMistryPsych.
All health content on is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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