The Role Of Physical Exercise In Managing Mental Illness (2024)

We all know that physical exercise is the best way to prevent diseases, tone our physiques, and keep ourselves in good shape. And if you’re a psychiatrist, medical doctor, or even a post-master’s psychiatric mental health nurse, you would also understand that the physical benefits of exercise also come with mental benefits – improving sleep, allowing sharper memory, and being a vital mood booster. But what about the fundamental role that exercise plays in the management of mental illnesses or conditions such as anxiety and depression?

Growing evidence points to the fact that physical exercise may lead to improved depression and anxiety-related outcomes compared to pharmacotherapeutic solutions. From aerobic exercises to weight training, any physical activity has the potential to not only be a stress reliever, but an active fighter against mental illness.

Endocannabinoids: The ‘Feel-Good’ Hormone

We have all experienced that relaxing or euphoric feeling after doing some physical activity. For many years, across the medical field and pop culture, this feeling has been attributed to the release of endorphins. Admittedly, endorphins definitely have their place as one of the brain’s natural pain relievers, as they are inhibitory neurotransmitters that play a significant role in blocking pain.

For example, activating endorphin receptors can relieve depression symptoms and reduce chronic headaches or migraines. However, recent research has shown that endorphins do not actually pass the brain-blood-barrier (BBB). That ‘feel-good’ feeling we get after finishing a good workout may actually traced to the release of a hormone called endocannabinoids.

Endocannabinoids, as their name suggests, are lipid molecules with similar molecular structures found in cannabis but are produced naturally in the body. While exercise increases the circulation of endorphins, it simultaneously increases the levels of endocannabinoids in the bloodstream. Yet the difference is that, unlike endorphins, endocannabinoids can freely move beyond cellular barriers that separate the bloodstream from the brain.

A joint study conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Medical College of Wisconsin, and William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in 2019 measured endocannabinoid levels and mood changes before and after exercise sessions of varying intensity in 17 women diagnosed with depression.

Each participant completed a dual round of 30-minute aerobic exercise sessions, with one at a prescribed moderate intensity and a second at the participants’ own preferences. Researchers in the end found notable increases in endocannabinoids and mood improvements in both sessions, with a slightly higher increase from the moderate-intensity session. The study attests to how exercise is an effective antidepressant due to its causal ability to blunt the brain’s response to physical and emotional stress by releasing this natural hormone.

Altering and Refining Brain Structure

A lot of mental illnesses alter the structure of the brain, and exercise, too, can rectify these in response.

Conditions such as anxiety trigger what is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response in the brain, and this leads to the release of chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol. While mere stress would most likely not lead to any significant changes in brain structure, with chronic and generalized anxiety it can entail increased risks of neuropsychiatric disorders and pernicious structural changes in the brain. For example, it has been found that chronic stress can degenerate the hippocampus – which plays a fundamental role in memory retention – and increase pressure on the prefrontal cortex – which regulates stress – and the effects of these are self-explanatory.

Other structural changes also include the increase of amygdala size – gray matter for fear response and emotional expression – causing amplified responses, such as aggression, to fearful or threatening situations.

Physical exercise, however, can reverse all of these damaging alterations. Regular movement can significantly increase the volume of the hippocampus, with those who exercise regularly found to have a larger hippocampus than those who do not.

The hippocampus shrinks in late adulthood, so adequate fitness becomes even more paramount for older adults, especially those with mental health conditions. The figures show that physical activities increased hippocampus volumes by 2%, which equates to a reversal of age-related volume losses by 1-2 years. For adults of all ages, one year of regular physical exercise can increase hippocampal volume by 1%.

An Alternative to Pharmaceutical Intervention?

Exercise as we see is a potent tool in managing and fighting symptoms of mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. Medications such as antidepressants and other leading psychiatric drugs have maintained a controversial reputation in the management of mental illness symptoms throughout the years. However, exercise may be a viable alternative for those who are wary or do not wish to take medicated treatments.

Recently, the University of South Australia conducted a comprehensive review of over 1097 clinical trials involving over 128,000 participants worldwide on the effects of physical activity and exercise on mental illnesses. Researchers found that exercise can be 1.5 times more effective at reducing mild-to-moderate symptoms of anxiety and depression than prescribed medication and cognitive therapy.

While researchers noted that the higher the intensity of exercise, the greater the results, any exercise – from yoga to brisk walking – was still more beneficial in alleviating symptoms than conventional care. These results are staggering overall, and they can serve as a guide for mental health professionals and practitioners to instead prescribe a safer and cheaper physical exercise regime first, rather than a more expensive and potentially adverse pharmaceutical medication for treatment. Even for more serious depressive disorders such as schizophrenia, exercise has also shown to be as effective as meditation in alleviating symptoms.

Exercise is rich in therapeutic promises for managing and even treating common mental illness conditions. Minimal, moderate, or high – regardless of which intensity, any exercise can manage and improve one’s mental health and well-being.

The Role Of Physical Exercise In Managing Mental Illness (2024)


The Role Of Physical Exercise In Managing Mental Illness? ›

People who exercise regularly have better mental health and emotional wellbeing, and lower rates of mental illness. Exercise is important for people with mental illness – it not only boosts our mood, concentration and alertness, but improves our cardiovascular and overall physical health.

What is the role of exercise in maintaining mental health? ›

Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function.

What role does physical health play in mental health? ›

Physical activity is not only good for your body, but it's also great for your mind. Being active releases chemicals in your brain that make you feel good - boosting your self-esteem and helping you concentrate as well as sleep well and feel better. Not bad for something many of us can do for free!

How does exercise reduce mental illness? ›

How does exercise help my mental health? Exercise causes your brain to release 'feel good' chemicals like endorphins and serotonin that help improve your mood. It also improves your fitness, which can help lift your mood. Doing physical activity can also distract you from negative thought patterns.

What is the role of diet and physical exercise in management of mental health disorders? ›

Participation in regular physical activity can increase our self-esteem and can reduce stress and anxiety. It also plays a role in preventing the development of mental health problems and in improving the quality of life of people experiencing mental health problems.

How does physical activity improve mental health statistics? ›

Researchers found that, on average, a person has 3.4 poor mental health days per month. But among those who exercise, the number of poor mental health days dropped by more than 40 percent. Exercise may change the way the brain functions, which could account for the decrease in depression or anxiety.

How does exercise improve mental health biologically? ›

The biological pathways whereby regular physical activity might confer resilience include (i) serving as a buffer against stress and stress-related disorders/chronic diseases, (ii) optimizing neuroendocrine and physiological responses to physical and psychosocial stressors, (iii) promoting an anti-inflammatory state, ...

What exercise is best for mental health? ›

Exercises to boost your mental health
  1. Walking. For many people, walking is their go-to mental health exercise. ...
  2. Running. If you're looking for a more intense form of exercise for mental health, try running. ...
  3. Strength training. ...
  4. Yoga. ...
  5. Dancing.
Jan 18, 2024

What role does physical environment play in your mental health? ›

The environment can affect your sense of social support, comfort, and level of stimulation. Factors such as crime, racism, and pollution can influence your health and safety, which can have a profound impact on your mental well-being.

How does regular exercise help to reduce the effects of mental stress? ›

It pumps up your endorphins.

Physical activity may help bump up the production of your brain's feel-good neurotransmitters, called endorphins. Although this function is often referred to as a runner's high, any aerobic activity, such as a rousing game of tennis or a nature hike, can contribute to this same feeling.

How does exercise improve mental focus? ›

When you do any type of intense physical activity, it causes blood to flow to the brain. This in turn fires up your neurones and promotes cell growth, particularly in the hippocampus. This means that just 20 minutes of exercise before studying can improve your concentration and help you focus your learning.

How does exercise reduce mental fatigue? ›

The mental benefits of aerobic exercise have a neurochemical basis. Exercise reduces levels of the body's stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators.

Why is physical exercise important? ›

Regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Being physically active can improve your brain health, help manage weight, reduce the risk of disease, strengthen bones and muscles, and improve your ability to do everyday activities.

What is the role of mental health in physical health? ›

Our bodies and minds are not separate, so it's not surprising that mental ill health can affect your body. Depression can come with headaches, fatigue and digestive problems, and anxiety can create an upset stomach, for example. Other symptoms can include insomnia, restlessness and difficulty concentrating.

Which mental illnesses are helped by physical activity? ›

Depression and anxiety symptoms often improve with exercise. Here are some realistic tips to help you get started and stay motivated. When you have depression or anxiety, exercise often seems like the last thing you want to do. But once you get started and keep going, exercise can make a big difference.

What is the emotional benefit of exercise? ›

Exercise is a natural and effective anti-anxiety treatment. It relieves tension and stress, boosts physical and mental energy, and enhances well-being through the release of endorphins.

Why are mental exercises important? ›

According to the Alzheimer's Association, research shows that keeping your brain active increases its vitality. Doing new things in new ways appears to help retain brain cells and connections. It may even produce new brain cells. In essence, breaking out of your routine can help keep your brain stay healthy.

How does exercising improve your health? ›

Regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Being physically active can improve your brain health, help manage weight, reduce the risk of disease, strengthen bones and muscles, and improve your ability to do everyday activities.

What is exercise therapy for mental health? ›

Exercise therapy is about using exercise to improve mental health and wellbeing. You may be surprised to hear that regular exercise can help you maintain a good level of mental health. In addition, it has been shown to help people with depression and schizophrenia as well as other conditions.

What is the role of exercise in the treatment of depression? ›

Summary of evidence

In this systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials, exercise showed moderate effects on depression compared with active controls, either alone or in combination with other established treatments such as cognitive behaviour therapy.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Carlyn Walter

Last Updated:

Views: 6129

Rating: 5 / 5 (50 voted)

Reviews: 81% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Carlyn Walter

Birthday: 1996-01-03

Address: Suite 452 40815 Denyse Extensions, Sengermouth, OR 42374

Phone: +8501809515404

Job: Manufacturing Technician

Hobby: Table tennis, Archery, Vacation, Metal detecting, Yo-yoing, Crocheting, Creative writing

Introduction: My name is Carlyn Walter, I am a lively, glamorous, healthy, clean, powerful, calm, combative person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.