Brain & Body: Mental Health Benefits Of Exercise

It’s common knowledge that exercise can benefit a person’s physical health. However, it’s not as widely known that physical activity can boost brain power and mental well-being. Studies show that exercise can reduce and even prevent common mental health conditions such as stress and anxiety while boosting mood. Learn more about the mental health benefits of physical activity here.

How Exercise Can Improve Mental Health

From fighting depression to promoting confidence, physical exercise can improve mental health in numerous ways.

Reduced Stress and Anxiety

Exercise helps grow new neurons in important areas of the brain, such as the hippocampus, through a process called neurogenesis. Studies show that neuron growth may help calm the brain when experiencing anxiety or stress.

Individuals who exercise often are less affected by stressful situations and can handle them more calmly. Physical exercise can help people cope with their current stressors and help fight future stress.

Eased Depression

A significant mental health benefit of exercise is its ability to fight depression. Research shows that exercise may even be an effective treatment method for mild to moderate depression.

People with depression tend to have distorted or smaller hippocampi. Physical exercise is linked to the growth of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) molecules within the hippocampus.

The growth of new brain cells in this area of the brain may be linked to superior management of depression symptoms. Just as antidepressant drugs attempt to increase the production of the BDNF molecule, exercise increases its production too.  

Improved Self-Esteem

According to the National Library of Medicine, exercise can alleviate low self-esteem and boost confidence. Improved confidence may come from becoming stronger, healthier, and more fit.

Individuals struggling with low self-esteem due to being overweight or obese may also improve their morale when they lose weight due to increased exercise. Improvements in physical health can lead to improvements in confidence and, ultimately, improvements in a person’s mental health.

Relief of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that stems from a traumatic event. Symptoms include severe anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, and uncontrollable thoughts. Studies show that physical exercise may help treat some symptoms of PTSD. Regular exercise can improve sleep and reduce the anxiety and depression correlated with PTSD.

Improved Social Support

Social support is linked to numerous mental health benefits, including improving the ability to cope with stress, superior motivation, and better decision-making.

Physical exercise can provide a support system for many individuals, as they may exercise in groups, socialize at the gym, play on sports teams, or work out with a fitness coach. The support they receive from others in their workout groups or on sports teams can help them through stressful or overwhelming situations.


Distraction is a significant benefit of physical exercise that is often overlooked. Playing a sport, hitting the gym, or taking part in other physical activities helps redirect a person’s attention, even if only briefly. Exercise can provide a respite from life’s problems.

Boosted Brain Power

As previously mentioned, physical exercise promotes the growth of new brain cells. Studies show this may occur in the hippocampus, an essential part of the brain for learning and memory.

Physical Activities for Mental Health

Research continuously states that physical exercise can improve mental health. However, a lack of exercise or inability to exercise may have the opposite effect, contributing to more severe depression and mental health concerns.

Fortunately, low-, medium-, and high-intensity workouts all offer mental health benefits. The following are a few types of exercise ideal for reducing stress, anxiety, and depression while boosting brain power and other mental health benefits.


Yoga can be as intense or low impact as you desire, which makes it ideal for people of all ages and physical activity levels. The meditation and controlled breathing associated with yoga can also relieve symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. Yoga may also lower blood pressure, heart rate, and physiological arousal.

Swimming, Running, Cycling

Swimming, running, cycling, hiking, and other aerobic activities are ideal for improving physical and psychological health. As little as five to 10 minutes of aerobic exercise can reduce anxiety and improve mood.


Physical exercise doesn’t have to involve the gym or sports. Practicing the activities you love — such as gardening, dancing, or walking your pet — can offer the mental health benefits listed above. Making physical activity fun will encourage you to do it more often and stay on track with your mental and physical health goals.

The mental health benefits of exercise are numerous, whether you’re seeking superior social support or relief from the symptoms of stress and anxiety. However, developing a physical activity routine and sticking to it can be challenging especially when battling a mental illness.

To learn more about the mental health benefits of exercise and tips for staying motivated, see the accompanying resource.

This infographic was created by Reclaim Fitness, personal trainer New Lenox

Author bio: Dan Borucki is an ISSA Certified Fitness Coach and Personal Trainer at Re|Claim Fitness. He is committed to providing a level of service that is focused on the individual, whatever his or her needs and goals may be. Borucki strives to encourage, support and challenge his clients to feel stronger, healthier and more confident.