How Does Exercise Affect Your Mental Health?

How Does Exercise Affect Your Mental Health?

Exercise is good for us. Health-giving exercise makes the heart pump faster and the lungs expand and contract, pushing more oxygen throughout the body, strengthening our bones, muscles, and support systems. Medical experts, doctors, nurses, licensed dietitians, nutritionists, and clinical researchers tell us daily exercises help reduce chronic illness, prevent early aging, and extend our lives. We hear about how exercise helps us lose weight and control blood pressure and diabetes, but many people may not understand how physical activity affects mental health.

What are some common mental health benefits of regular exercise?

Research shows that exercise triggers the release of hormones that control everything from sleep to appetite. Most people know that sleep deprivation, as well as inefficient sleep, makes you cranky, fuzzy headed, and less likely to feel ready to face the daily grind. But poor sleep quality may also lead to depression and other negative behavioral patterns.

The feel-good hormone, dopamine, is associated with enhanced learning capabilities, motor function, and an elevated mood long after your physical workout is over.

What other hormones are released during exercise?

Hormones like dopamine are the body’s way of responding to both internal and external stimuli. The body uses hormones to recognize and respond to potential threats and benefits. Neurotransmitters may kick into high gear when you are experiencing physical pain and feeling like you are bulletproof and on top of the world.

Exercise increases some hormone production while blocking or reducing the natural release of other hormones. Here are a few examples of chemicals that are released in response to exercise and improve mental fitness.


These neurotransmitters promote an overall feeling of well-being and contentment. Runners often report feeling a natural high that motivates them to run every day. The endorphin response is similar to the way your body reacts to morphine, reducing the perception of pain. This is why some people can push through the pain of arthritis or muscle cramps to finish the race.


According to the Hormone Health Network, serotonin is the primary hormone our bodies use to stabilize our mood and experience happiness. It also aids with healthy sleep patterns, appetite control, and proper digestion, all vital to overall health and wellness. There is evidence that too little serotonin can cause depression and anxiety.

Adrenaline and Cortisol

Both physical and mental stress trigger the release of adrenaline and cortisol. These chemicals produce a wide range of symptoms, including feelings of doom and dread, panic, restlessness, and anxiety. Exercise reduces the natural release of these chemicals, thereby reducing their negative mental impacts.

How do behavior and mental health treatment plans utilize physical exercise programs?

Exercising for improved cognition and mental health may be as simple as taking a brisk 30-minute walk three to five times per week. Other activities might include aerobic and anaerobic workouts using weights, a treadmill, or a variety of equipment at the local Y or private gym.

Cognitive-behavioral specialists always recommend developing an exercise plan based on a person’s overall health and wellness, underlying physical conditions and limitations and their treatment goals. An exercise plan for stress reduction may look vastly different from an exercise treatment plan to help people lose weight and improve their body image perception.

Generally speaking, an exercise program usually involves starting slowly and working up to a workout level that challenges you but does not put you at risk for physical injury. Incorporating exercise into mental health treatment plans means your therapist includes movements and activities that will:

  • Reduce stress hormone release
  • Elevate your mood
  • Support healthy sleep patterns
  • Improve oxygen circulation throughout the brain and body systems
  • Strengthen muscles and bones
  • Promote weight management
  • Encourage life-long exercise
  • Help control blood pressure and blood glucose levels
  • Give you the vital tools to reduce mental health symptoms.

While there is not one exercise plan that is perfect for everyone, there is a perfect plan for each individual, one that will improve daily life and functionality for those living with depression or other mental health disorders.

The best treatment plan is the one designed in conjunction with primary care physicians, therapists, psychologists, and others in the health care team serving you. Individuals with mental health challenges do not have to live in the shadows with their symptoms. They can thrive and live life to its fullest with the help of cognitive behavioral therapy, exercise, medication, and other treatment options to address their specific needs.

For more information about the relationship between mental fitness and exercise, please contact Prime Behavioral Health today to schedule a private consultation.

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