Mental and Emotional Health Can be Improved through Exercise

Last updated on June 9th, 2020

Time to Read: 9 minutes

When you’re suffering from depression and anxiety, the desire to exercise is not a priority. However, it should be, as mental and emotional health can be improved through exercise.

It’s widely known that exercise helps prevent/improve many physical health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and arthritis. However, plenty of research has shown that there are also psychological and physical benefits that help improve mood and reduce anxiety.

How mental and emotional health can be improved through exercise

There is still much research to be done to determine exactly how exercise alleviates symptoms of mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and fatigue. While doctors and researchers agree that the benefits are there, a standard agreement as to why exercise provides so many benefits is not completely clear. However, there are several hypotheses surrounding exercise and mental illness.

Psychological Hypotheses

active woman relieved

There are three main hypotheses that explain the psychological effects of exercise on mental well-being. These include distraction, self-efficacy, and social interaction.


One hypothesis suggests that exercise is a favorable distraction from mental illness. When a person is suffering from anxiety or depression, they tend to dwell on their problems. If they are alone with their thoughts or their mind is otherwise idle, these thoughts can get ahold of them and exacerbate their mental struggles. When you exercise, you are focused on your exercise and cannot simultaneously focus on your personal struggles. Many times, people who suffer from depression and anxiety drink alcohol, dwell on their feelings, sleep a lot, or overeat to mask their bad feelings. If you can turn these poor habits into the much healthier habit of exercising, you’ll find it a healthier coping strategy.


The term self-efficacy is used to describe confidence in a person’s ability to control their own behaviors and motivations. When this term is applied to exercise, it means that exercise is perceived in our minds as a challenging activity. Therefore, engaging in exercise regularly leads to a boost in your self-esteem and, thereby, to your overall mood and self-confidence. Regular exercise also helps to get your body in shape, which often improves your overall appearance. This can also give you a much-needed boost to your self-esteem.

Social Interaction

Many people that suffer from depression or anxiety also struggle with social anxiety. They may become very nervous to talk in front of groups or engage in other beneficial social activities. When you start to exercise, you will undoubtedly form social relationships related to the exercise. For instance, if you start walking, you may see the same people every day and may start to say hi or chat with them. If your friends and family know you are exercising, they will offer support. You may join a group, either in person or online, that encourages each other to meet their exercise goals. All of these things provide positive social support, which boosts your mood and your confidence in other social settings.

Physiological Hypotheses


There are also hypotheses regarding how exercise affects you physiologically. The two main hypotheses regard endocannabinoids and monoamines.


Your body produces endogenous cannabinoids, also called endocannabinoids, to keep all of your internal functions running smoothly. In order to work, the endocannabinoids have to bind to receptors, which are also found throughout your body. The reason marijuana makes you feel good is that it binds to both types of receptors. When you exercise and release endocannabinoids, they bind to the pleasure receptors. This gives you a pleasant feeling but does not include the negative side effects of taking marijuana.


Physical activity increases the transmission of monoamines. A common one is dopamine. These substances function in your brain the same as an antidepressant. In fact, antidepressant drugs that are prescribed are often synthetic versions of these monoamines. Although it has been shown that exercise boosts these monoamines, more research is needed to determine exactly how this works and how it can provide long-term benefits.

Physical Activity vs. Exercise

The thought of a structured exercise program is often too overwhelming to contemplate if you are suffering from anxiety or depression. However, any physical activity can boost your mood and provide many of the other health benefits.

Physical activity is anything that requires you to use your muscles and energy. This includes mundane things such as housework and leisure activities such as gardening.

Exercise is a planned and structured method of doing certain body movements to improve or maintain your physical health and fitness.

It doesn’t have to be structured “exercise” to reap rewards. Mental and emotional health can be improved through exercise or through physical activity. If you struggle with the thought of exercise, look at it as play instead. Walk the dog or schedule a regular walk with friends or family. If you have access to a swimming pool, rather than just float around in the water, consider swimming back and forth a few times. You may find activities like this enjoyable yet not carry the baggage of exercise.

Getting over the mental hurdle of exercise 

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When you are dealing with depression and anxiety, the thought of lifting weights or joining a gym can be too overwhelming. However, simple yet pleasurable activities such as gardening, washing your car, or taking a slow walk through the neighborhood can provide the mood boost you need. When the focus is on mental health instead of physical health, you are free to indulge in the activities that you enjoy, without worrying about the other physical benefits. The physical benefits will come, but when you aren’t focused on those, your mood will automatically be lifted.

When travel to an exercise facility is not possible, a home-based program can provide the same benefits. It can also be easier to incorporate physical activity and exercise into your daily schedule when you don’t need to travel outside of your home to do it.

Walking is one of the easiest, safest, and most inexpensive types of exercise. Many people with chronic illnesses choose to walk as their primary form of exercise. Walking is a great way to get outside in the fresh air and revel in the beautiful things in nature. Seeing bright, colorful flowers and hearing birds chirping can elevate your mood even without exercise. But when you combine the physical activity of walking with seeing the beauty of nature, you are getting a two for one.

Exercise videos that can be done at home are another alternative for those who cannot leave the house to attend classes. People who suffer from social anxiety are far less likely to join a gym where they have to interact with other people. Purchasing and using an at-home video can provide all of the benefits without the additional stress of social anxiety.

How often do you need to exercise to see benefits?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all adults should aim for at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity. This would include things like walking and swimming. This is only about 20 minutes per day. If you are engaging in more vigorous exercise such as running, the recommended length of time is only 75 minutes a week.

The Mayo Clinic says that exercise does not have to be done all in big chunks to be beneficial. If you can only fit in a five-minute walk before supper, then you should do that and not worry that it isn’t a full 20 minutes.

These recommendations are not specifically for mental health, but the same amounts can improve the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Focusing on activities you enjoy instead of forcing yourself to do things that are hard will help because you are more likely to stick with them. For instance, if you hate running but force yourself to take a run each day, your motivation will eventually expire, and you won’t do it. However, if you love to swim, you will make time in your schedule to get your swimming in, and you will be more likely to stick with it long term. The mental health benefits of exercise increase over the long term, making it imperative you choose activities that you love and will stick with.

Individually Tailored Interventions

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Many doctors know the benefits of exercise on mental health and will even prescribe exercise as part of the treatment for mentally ill patients. It is important that these prescriptions are individually tailored to your specific situation. When a prescription for exercise takes into account all of the various factors that affect a patient, such as age, gender, cultural background, and current fitness level, these programs are much more effective in increasing levels of physical activity than a generic intervention.

The effectiveness of an exercise program for mental health is based on various factors, including the following:

  • Written out programs (on paper or through email) are more effective than recommendations received during a counseling session with no follow-up
  • Vigorous activities such as running and aerobics classes are less successful than more moderate activities such as walking.
  • Employ behavior modification aspects, such as goal setting
  • Encourage social support. This can be support from a group or even just from close friends and family
  • Encouraging physical activity during leisure time (taking a walk instead of watching a movie, etc.)

If your doctor is recommending physical activity as part of your treatment for depression and anxiety, make sure that he or she is tailoring the program to meet your individual needs. If there is something within the program that you know you won’t be able or willing to do, speak up right away so that you can gain all of the benefits of exercise.

Although there is still much to be discovered as to the ins and outs of why exercise is so beneficial to mental health, there are a few points that have been shown over and over to be true. These include:

  • People who exercise regularly have less severe symptoms of depression and anxiety. This is true with people who have a diagnosis of depression or anxiety and those who are not diagnosed with any mental illness.
  • Moderate exercise (such as walking) has been an effective treatment for some patients who suffer from mild to moderate depression. As depression worsens, moderate exercise on its own is no longer as effective.
  • If a person with depression has only partially responded to antidepressants, adding exercise to their prescription regimen can help them get better.
  • 16 weeks of regular exercise has been shown to be just as effective as an antidepressant in older patients who were not already exercising.
  • All types of exercise, both aerobic and strength training, can help treat depression. Any physical activity, especially if the affected person had not been exercising previously, can elevate mood and help ease symptoms of depression and anxiety.

So why can mental and emotional health can be improved through exercise?

While more research still needs to be done to understand how and why mental and emotional health can be improved through exercise, it’s clear that there is a link. If you are struggling with anxiety and depression, give exercise a try. It certainly won’t hurt you, and there’s plenty of evidence to show that it may, indeed, help you.