Exercise for mental health

Exercise & Mental Health:

How The Two Come Together to Help You Create a Happier Life

Exercise and mental health are not something that we might think of in the same sentence. There is a relationship between the two.


Exercise is one of those things that you may or may not do. It could be that you love it or that you do not enjoy it. Perhaps, you are not able to do it right now for some reason. It may be that you are addicted to it and cannot stop exercising. 


According to Help Guide, regular exercise can have a profoundly positive impact on depression, anxiety, and ADHD. It also relieves stress, improves memory, helps you sleep better, and boosts your overall mood.


Wherever you are with exercise, this article will help you understand the benefits of exercise on physical and mental health. It will also help you determine what is best for your personal exercise plan going forward.

Physical health benefits of exercise

There are many physical benefits to exercise. Maybe you have heard about the benefits or have experienced the benefits.


You may have heard about the runner’s high. This is where you feel better after running. It is a chemical change in the body.


There are other benefits to exercise besides having to run. Even walking can make a difference.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the physical benefits are: “weight management…reduce cardiovascular disease…reduce type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome…reduce some cancers…strengthen your bones and muscles…improve your ability to do daily activities and prevent falls.”


These are all benefits that help you live a healthier and happier life.

Exercise and Mental Health

There are many reasons to exercise for your physical health. Equally, there are also many reasons to exercise for your mental health.

The US National Library of Medicine /  National Institutes of Health states; “Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function. Exercise has also been found to alleviate symptoms such as low self-esteem and social withdrawal.”

Exercise and sleep

Exercise also has a positive effect on sleep. Perhaps this is something that would help you.


According to John Hopkins Medicine,  “We have solid evidence that exercise does, in fact, help you fall asleep more quickly and improves sleep quality,” says Charlene Gamaldo, M.D., medical director of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep at Howard County General Hospital.


Continuing, “we do know that moderate aerobic exercise increases the amount of slow wave sleep you get. Slow wave sleep refers to deep sleep, where the brain and body have a chance to rejuvenate. Exercise can also help to stabilize your mood and decompress the mind, “a cognitive process that is important for naturally transitioning to sleep,” says Gamaldo.

Exercise and depression

Feeling down is something that you may feel from time to time. Perhaps, you are depressed. Perhaps you are clinically depressed and as difficult as exercise may seem, it would be beneficial.


Maybe you want to learn more about depression You can learn about it from my writing here.


According to Harvard Health Publishing Harvard Medical School

Research shows that exercise is also an effective treatment. “For some people it works as well as antidepressants, although exercise alone isn’t enough for someone with severe depression,” says Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.


He goes on to say, “Research shows that exercise is also an effective treatment. “For some people it works as well as antidepressants, although exercise alone isn’t enough for someone with severe depression.”


Exercise and anxiety

Anxiety is also affected by exercise.


Maybe you want to learn more about anxiety.  You can learn more about it from my writing here.


According to Harvard Health Publishing Harvard Medical School, exercise;

  • Engaging in exercise diverts you from the very thing you are anxious about.
  • Moving your body decreases muscle tension, lowering the body’s contribution to feeling anxious.
  • Getting your heart rate up changes brain chemistry, increasing the availability of important anti-anxiety neurochemicals, including serotonin, gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), andendocannabinoids.
  • Exercise activates frontal regions of the brain responsible for executive function, which helps control the amygdala, our reacting system to real or imagined threats to our survival.

Other ways that exercise helps your mental health

There are other ways that exercise affects us.


Regarding exercise the US National Library of Medicine /  National Institutes of Health states, Every mental health therapist should be talking about the health benefit of 

  1. Improved sleep
  2. Increased interest in sex
  3. Better endurance
  4. Stress relief
  5. Improvement in mood
  6. Increased energy and stamina
  7. Reduced tiredness that can increase mental alertness
  8. Weight reduction
  9. Reduced cholesterol and improved cardiovascular fitness

These are all benefits that you may want in your own life.

Guidelines for exercise

It is helpful to know what the guidelines are for exercise. You might want to see if your country has its own guidelines if you do not live in North America.


Remember when looking at the following guidelines that they are just guidelines. You will need to do what is best for you.


The guidelines for exercise for Canadian Adults according to Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines are; 

To achieve health benefits, adults aged 18-64 years should accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more.

It is also beneficial to add muscle and bone strengthening activities using major muscle groups, at least 2 days per week.

More physical activity provides greater health benefits.


The guidelines for exercise for American Adults according to Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans are;


Adults should move more and sit less throughout the day. Some physical activity is better than none. Adults who sit less and do any amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity gain some health benefits.


For substantial health benefits, adults should do at least 150 minutes (2hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) to 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Preferably, aerobic activity should be spread throughout the week.


Additional health benefits are gained by engaging in physical activity beyond the equivalent of 300 minutes (5 hours) of moderate-intensity physical activity a week.


Adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity and that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week, as these activities provide additional health benefits.


Both the Canadian and American Guidelines give recommendations for other age groups.


How to start an exercise program

The first place to start is figuring out your physical health…If you are over the age of 30 you may need to start with seeing your health care provider to see if there is any reason you are not able to exercise. You need to remember that safety is the most important factor when exercising.


The next thing to think about is what are the activities that you would like to do. What activities do you enjoy the most? Does this involve others like children in your household … can it be a family activity most of the time with some individual exercise for yourself.


Will you be going to a gym (depends on local COVID restrictions). Will you be exercising at home? Is there exercise equipment that you need to purchase? Are there others’ schedules that you need to consider?


Another thing to consider is what is your goal for exercising. You may need to start small by walking around your place for 5 minutes three times a week. Perhaps you are at a stage where you could walk for 30 minutes a day three times a week.


When working with individuals, I, the author like to set a goal of 30 minutes three times a week. This is so that at the end of the week you can feel good that you met your goal.  Sometimes if you strive for more and do not reach the goal, it feels like a failure and maybe the reason to stop exercising.


Other considerations are where will you exercise; what is the climate like such as sunshine, rain, snow, and wind; and anything else that you need to consider. 


As you can see, it may be a real effort to exercise; however, the benefits are well worth it. You can do it…just start somewhere even if you just start walking.


If you feel as if your mental health issues and exercise are not working as well as you want them to, perhaps counseling is the best next step. If you’re in Alberta, please contact me, Audrey Tait, to explore working together to help you get to were you would like to be.