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5 Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

We know that exercise is good for our bodies, but did you know that exercise is also a fast, inexpensive way to improve mental health? It’s true! Exercise can: 

  • Help with depression 
  • Relieve stress
  • Alleviate symptoms of low self-esteem
  • Raise cognitive function
  • Improve sleep


Studies show that exercise can be just as effective at treating mild depression as taking antidepressant medication. Depression can lead to decreased physical activity, tricking our brains into believing it would be better to curl up with a bowl of ice cream and binge an entire season on Netflix instead of going for a run. 

But a research team led by Karmel W. Choi, Ph.D., found that “On average, doing more physical activity appears to protect against developing depression. Any activity appears to be better than none; our rough calculations suggest that replacing sitting with 15 minutes of a heart-pumping activity like running or with an hour of moderately vigorous activity is enough to produce the average increase in accelerometer data that was linked to lower depression risk.”


The depression-busting side effects of exercise can also help boost our mood when we’re feeling stress, anxiety, or other negative emotions. Exercise improves focus, optimism, and energy. 

Christopher Bergland, retired athlete turned science writer, said: “Every day, when I lace up my sneakers to go for a jog, I visualize a cascade of feel-good neurotransmitters (e.g., endocannabinoids, dopamine) along with a smorgasbord of mood-boosting endogenous hormones such as adrenaline and endorphin flooding my body and brain.”

Low Self-esteem

Regular physical activity is an investment in our health–physical, emotional, and mental. Making it a habit to care for ourselves can nurture our sense of self-worth. We gain a sense of achievement as we become stronger, feel better about our appearance, and meet our goals.

Cognitive Function

Scientists have discovered a protein called irisin that is produced in the brain during endurance exercise. Irisin has neuroprotective properties that can activate the growth of new nerves involved in memory and learning. 


If endlessly counting sheep has become our nightly routine, exercise might be a more helpful option for more restful sleep. Physical activity increases body temperature, which can have a calming effect on the mind. Exercise also helps regulate our circadian rhythm, which controls when we feel tired and when we feel alert. If you prefer to exercise at night, try something calming like yoga, stretching, or a walk. 

Exercise Happy

The physical effects of exercise on our mental health are extremely beneficial, but remember that if the activity is also fun, we’re more likely to stick with it and enjoy the long-term benefits of making exercise a habit. Find something that you love to do.

In summary, one of the best ways to optimize your mental health is also one of the best ways to optimize your physical health.

What’s your favorite way to get exercise?