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How Fitness Can Help Mental Health

By: Annemarie Morrell, Winthrop University graduate student

Most of the time when people think of fitness and going to the gym they think of the physical changes that will be happening to their body, but forget about the mental effects it can have as well. Many people neglect how exercise can affect the most important organ; the brain. Some people are aware that there is relation between exercise and mental health in a positive way but they might not know how or why this happens.

Exercise can reduce anxiety, depression, and low moods by improving self-esteem and cognitive function. It can also improve health issues such as high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis. When you are participating in any physical exercise there is a release of a feel good chemical called endorphins. Endorphins are a group of hormones secreted within the brain and the nervous system which can have a number of physiological functions. These endorphins can relieve pain and stress. They also trigger a positive feeling in the body similarly to morphine. This is where the expression “runner’s high” comes from. This reaction triggers other chemicals that improve mood including Dopamine, Norepinephrine, Serotonin and Adrenaline. So not only are you reaping the health benefits of exercise you're also going to benefit the mental aspect as well.

Where to Start?

The amount of exercise needed to reap these mental benefits are around 30 minutes or more a day for at least 3-5 days a week according to the Mayoclinic. If this idea seems daunting or

unachievable for your lifestyle remember even small amounts of physical activity can help your mood. Choosing exercise that you enjoy doing such as walking, kayaking, rollerblading, etc. are good ways to start. Aerobic exercise such as swimming, cycling, rowing, or strength training have been shown to be the most effective since they center around heavier breathing and concentration. Simply focusing on a certain exercise can give you a break from current concerns that you might be experiencing, so of course some people might benefit more from a yoga class versus cycling. That's why it's important to find the specific exercise that works for you and that you enjoy participating in.

Starting to incorporate more physical exercise into your busy lifestyle can be stressful and overwhelming at first but just remember you can always start slow, and start with an activity that you already enjoy doing. This way you can build it off of the activity and incorporate more exercise into your week. Starting to build a positive relationship between exercise and mental health can be a great technique to improve your mood. Hopefully with the ideas mentioned and benefits you can consider the effects of regular exercise on your mental health and how it can improve your current health status.


Bruce DF. Exercise and depression: Endorphins, reducing stress, and more. WebMD. Accessed September 12, 2022.

Sharma A, Madaan V, Petty FD. Exercise for mental health. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2006;8(2):106. doi:10.4088/pcc.v08n0208a

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