Exercise and Mental Wellness: Understanding the Connection

The relationship between physical exercise and mental well-being is profound, yet often overlooked. Exercise is a powerful tool that offers significant benefits for mental health, transcending mere physical improvements. This post delves into how regular physical activity can be a key component in enhancing mental health, providing insights that are valuable for anyone looking to improve their mental health through exercise.

The Broad Spectrum of Exercise’s Mental Health Benefits

Exercise’s impact on mental health is comprehensive and multifaceted. Regular physical activity has been shown to bring about significant improvements in mood, self-esteem, and self-efficacy, as well as reductions in symptoms of insomnia, stress, anxiety, and depression (Mikkelsen et al., 2017). These benefits arise from multiple possible mechanisms, indicating that exercise influences mental health through a variety of pathways.

Interestingly, the type of exercise does not appear to be a significant factor in these mental health improvements. Both aerobic exercises, such as running, swimming, and walking, and anaerobic exercises, like weight lifting and sprinting, are similarly effective in attenuating these symptoms (Mikkelsen et al., 2017). Even a short duration of exercise can positively influence mental health if done consistently – just 15 minutes a day, 3 times a week can lower the risk of depressive symptoms (Chang et al., 2017). This universality underscores the accessibility of exercise as a tool for mental health benefits, available to everyone regardless of their fitness preferences.

Next we’ll explore some of the physiological and psychological mechanisms through which exercise positively impacts mental health, as discussed by Mikkelsen and Colleagues (2017):

Exploring the Mechanisms: How Exercise Enhances Mental Health

1. Physiological Benefits of Exercise

Endorphins and Endocannabinoid System: The Natural Mood Enhancers

Exercise triggers the release of endorphins, natural hormones that aid the body’s response to stressful or painful scenarios. This release may induce feelings of euphoria and sedation, often referred to as the “runner’s high”. Both aerobic and anaerobic exercises can stimulate this endorphin release, although aerobic endurance training causes a greater release, offering a natural way to enhance mood (Sharifi et al., 2018). However, the source of the runner’s high has been called into question, as endorphins may be too large to efficiently cross through the blood brain barrier to have an effect on the brain (Matei et al., 2023). 

More recent research has explored the endocannabinoid system – a complicated system that has implications for pain, inflammation, stress/anxiety, motivation, and reward (Matei et al., 2023). Exercise can induce the release of endocannabinoids, causing sensations like the runner’s high and enhanced mood (Matei et al., 2023).

Mitochondria Function: The Energy Boosters 

Regular physical activity improves both the number and function of mitochondria in our cells. This enhancement means more energy is produced, equipping the brain and nervous system with the resources to respond and adapt to stress more effectively.

Neurotransmitter Balance: Natural Antidepressant Effects

Physical activity has the potential to elevate the levels of key neurotransmitters in the brain, including serotonin and noradrenaline, mirroring the effects of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). In individuals experiencing depression, there is often a noted deficiency in these serotonergic and adrenergic transmitters. Engaging in exercise can effectively increase the availability of these crucial neurotransmitters, contributing to an improved mental state.

HPA Axis Regulation: Building Mental Resilience 

Regular exercise contributes to the regulation of the hypothalamic pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a key system in controlling the body’s response to stress. Individuals with depression and anxiety often exhibit an overactive HPA axis, leading to an increased release of stress hormones such as cortisol. By engaging in consistent physical activity, one can moderate heightened HPA activity, thereby diminishing the intensity of stress and anxiety responses and fostering resilience against both mental and physical adversities.

Inflammatory Mechanisms

Recent research indicates a notable interplay between the immune and nervous systems, with chronic inflammation being linked to deteriorating mental health. Exercise serves as a dual-action agent in combating inflammation: it not only fosters an anti-inflammatory environment indirectly through a variety of pathways, but also directly curtails inflammation by decreasing adipose tissue, a known contributor to persistent low-grade inflammation. Thus, the anti-inflammatory properties of regular physical activity are instrumental in enhancing mental health.

While exercise typically combats chronic inflammation, it’s important to note that prolonged, intense exercise can temporarily suppress the immune system for 3-24 hours, a concern more pertinent to athletes engaged in consistent high-intensity training.

2. Psychological Benefits of Exercise

Distraction – The Mental Time-Out: 

Physical activity offers a valuable distraction, providing a mental respite from persistent negative thoughts. This “mental time-out” is a key psychological benefit, helping to interrupt cycles of rumination and stress through active engagement in exercise.

Self-Efficacy – Belief in One’s Abilities: 

Successfully completing challenging physical tasks can boost self-efficacy, enhancing the belief in one’s ability to overcome difficult tasks. This increased self-confidence is linked to better adherence to personal goals and overall mental well-being.


The impact of exercise on mental health is well-rounded, encompassing both physiological and psychological aspects. Recognizing these mechanisms empowers us to utilize exercise not only as a physical fitness tool but also as a crucial element in our mental health strategy.


Chang, Y.-C., Lu, M.-C., Hu, I.-H., Wu, W.-C. I., & Hu, S. C. (2017). Effects of different amounts of exercise on preventing depressive symptoms in community-dwelling older adults: A prospective cohort study in Taiwan. BMJ Open, 7(4). 

Matei, D., Trofin, D., Iordan, D. A., Onu, I., Condurache, I., Ionite, C., & Buculei, I. (2023). The endocannabinoid system and physical exercise. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 24(3), 1989. 

Mikkelsen, K., Stojanovska, L., Polenakovic, M., Bosevski, M., & Apostolopoulos, V. (2017). Exercise and mental health. Maturitas, 106, 48-56.

Sharifi, M., Hamedinia, M. R., & Hosseini-Kakhak, S. A. (2018). The effect of an exhaustive aerobic, anaerobic and resistance exercise on serotonin, beta-endorphin and BDNF in students. Physical Education of Students, 22(5), 272–277. 

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Josh Langkamp

Josh is a highly skilled and committed strength and conditioning coach with a wealth of experience in physical performance enhancement and optimization. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology from the University of Alberta as well as a CSCS certification from the NSCA. His perspective is enriched by his background as a boxer and his love of sports like football and hockey. Josh places a strong emphasis on individualized care and thinks that the secret to reaching objectives is well-planned exercise. Josh is a dependable guide for improving athletic performance and fitness, with aspirations to advance in his physiotherapy career.