We have long been aware of the physical benefits of regular exercise. It helps decrease the risk of coronary heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and fights the menace of obesity. Most runners describe feeling more energetic after they perform exercise. The countless health benefits of exercise cannot be ignored but recent research has also shown that exercise can have a positive effect on your mood and mental alertness. When you exercise your mind feels relaxed and it is a good way to balance your emotions.

Only 29% of Australians exercise or play sports twice a week while hardly half of them exercise enough to gain health benefits. These statistics are shocking to say the least. A recently conducted survey showed that exercise helped 71% of emotionally sensitive people to improve their mood.

Frequently fitness programs claim that they hear their clients say that exercise makes them “feel good”. In fact studies have also revealed that even a single set of 20-25 minutes of mild or moderate aerobic exercise induces positive feelings and dispels negative mood. We hear psychologists and psychiatrists stress on the importance of incorporating exercise in our regular lifestyles time and again. Exercise can fight mental disorders like stress, depression, anxiety and helps elevate mood.

How exercise helps elevate mood

Exercise helps release chemicals in your brain that work together to make you feel good. These chemicals improve mental health with exercise. These chemicals include endorphins, serotonin, dopamine and epinephrine.

  • Serotonin help to lift mood, produces feelings of satiety and lifts depression.
  • Endorphins trigger a positive feeling in the body similar to the euphoria felt after morphine. It is responsible for the phenomenon of “runners high”. They act as the body’s natural painkillers.
  • Epinephrine is responsible for the “fight and flight” response that we feel when we are scared or under stress. Epinephrine is the hormone that keeps us active both mentally and physically.
  • Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for sleep and waking cycles. Depletion of this neurotransmitter occurs in anxiety, depression, chronic stress, starvation or trauma.

Benefits of exercise on mental health

Exercise has significant benefits on both our mind and body. An active lifestyle enables us to live a quality life. Here are a few health benefits that exercise has on our mood and mental health:

Exercise improves mood

Regular exercise has been shown to enhance mood by various studies. Most athletes have described the “good feeling” that they experience following a mild, moderate or heavy exercise. Mood state is influenced by psychosocial, biochemical, psychophysiological and environmental factors working together therefore it is difficult to exactly describe how exercise regulates mood states. It has been shown that even one session of mild, moderate or heavy aerobic exercise for 25-60 minutes induces a positive mood state. It has also been observed that cardiovascular and resistance exercises can help with various low mood states like tension, fatigue, anger and positively affects vigour.

Exercise helps with stress

The body releases a chemical substance called cortisol when it is under stress. High levels of cortisol influence the brain by blocking the hippocampus to think clearly and cause the individual to get locked in negative thoughts. Exercise directly prevents the damaging effects of cortisol in the hippocampus by protecting the neurons from damage in the stress causing areas and thus regulates the mood imbalance. Thus exercise has a preventive role. Many published studies have revealed that improved fitness levels are directly related to the ability to manage stress effectively. Moderate-intensity aerobic exercise sessions lasting over 20 min three times daily for 12 weeks have shown to have a positive effect on stress management.

Exercise’s role in treating depression

One of the most commonly accepted psychological benefits of exercise is its anti-depressant effect. Individuals suffering from clinical depression are in a chronic state of low mood and energy, which is why they exercise less. People who do not respond to anti-depressant medication can use exercise as a treatment option. People diagnosed with mild or moderate clinical depression have shown that exercise is as effective medications for the treatment. 30 minutes of intense cardiovascular and resistance exercises have both shown to be equally effective in producing an anti-depressant effect. Therefore the inclusion of exercise in depression treatment programs should be encouraged.

Exercise treats anxiety and panic

Anxiety is an apprehensive state of mind or feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.

There is a strong link between exercise and reduction of anxiety. Most researches have shown that aerobic training regimes have the greatest effects on reducing anxiety. According to studies, short bursts of 5 minutes of cardiovascular exercise stimulate reasonable anti-anxiety effects. Moreover those who train for a length of 10-15 weeks are more liable to receive the beneficial effects.

Benefits of cardiovascular exercise

Cardiovascular exercise is a rhythmical exercise that involves the use of a large number of muscles of our body. Examples of cardio exercises include brisk walking, jogging, running, swimming, cycling and aerobics. Intense cardiovascular exercises are able to release chemicals and neurotransmitters in our brain like dopamine, epinephrine, serotonin and endorphins. This is the reason why cardiovascular exercises are responsible for a mood-raising phenomenon, which can help with low mood states and depression.

The American college of sports medicine suggests 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise 5 days a week or a 20 minute vigorous cardiovascular exercise 3 days a week.

Benefits of cardiovascular exercise includes:

  • Weight loss
  • Stronger heart and increased lung capacity
  • Increases bone density
  • Reduces stress
  • Reduces risk of cardiovascular diseases and some types of cancer
  • Relief from depression and anxiety temporarily
  • Increased self-confidence
  • Feeling energized

Getting involved in an active lifestyle has threefold benefits. It provides a distraction, reduces muscle strains and boosts up your brain stores of chemicals to enhance your mood.

Related articles:

How an Active Lifestyle Promotes Good Mental Health

Anxiety: When is it Normal and When is it Time to Seek Help?


If you or someone you know suffers from depression, Australia Counselling has counsellors who specialse in the treatment of depression in locations such as Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and rural areas of Australia. Visit our depression area of practice page to find a depression counsellor or psychologist near you.

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