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Exercise And Brain: Discover The Benefits Of Exercise For Mental Health

More and more people now understand the mental health benefits of exercise, where it helps in regulating the stress hormones and along with releasing neurotransmitters, which help in enhancing the mood. Exercise when compounded with other treatments helps with symptoms of different kinds of mental health diseases, including ADHD and depression.

Almost everyone knows that regular exercise has multiple health benefits, such as strengthening the bones, muscles, lungs and heart along with preventing some diseases. The positive impact of exercise on the mental health is one which many people are learning about now.

In today’s world there is high prevalence of depression, Anxiety and other such mental health conditions all over the world and many people can avail the benefits of exercise for a positive mental health.

In this article, we will talk about relationship of exercise with the brain and different mental health conditions and how the diet can also affect a person’s mental health.

How Does Exercise Affect The Brain Or Mental Health?

On the surface exercising will seem fairly simple, however, there is a complex chemical cascade that occurs within the body every time one exercises by going to the gym, going for a run or simply participating in any sports.

This chemical flow causes various beneficial effects on the brain by releasing:

Neurotransmitter Release: Depending on the intensity of the exercise, there are various important chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters that get released in the nervous system of the body, which are beneficial for the mental health.

Endorphins and Endocannabinoids: Endorphins are the most popularly known neurotransmitters in association with exercise. However, endocannabinoids are lesser known neurotransmitters that also play a vital role in the brain when exercising. Endorphins help in blocking the pain and increasing pleasure and exercise helps in increasing the levels of endorphin (1).

However, recent research shows that the euphoric feeling that is felt after a workout can also be from endocannabinoids and endorphins working collectively.

.Endocannabinoids especially are a group of neurotransmitters which are thought to cause the “runner’s high” a feeling of calm euphoria that one has after undergoing a strenuous workout (2).

Dopamine: Dopamine is another impactful neurotransmitter related to exercise. Dopamine has a vital role in how one experiences pleasure and it is also responsible for other functions in the body, like regulating sleep cycles, heart rate, attention, mood, working memory, motivation, learning and processing of pain (3).

There is very limited data on the kind of exercise, which is best for stimulating the release of dopamine and more research is needed.

Exercise Promotes Neuroplasticity: Neuroplasticity is the ability of the nervous system and the brain to change their activity in response to external or internal stimuli (4). This affects in learning new activities, skills and languages.

There is some research which suggests that exercise helps in promoting neuroplasticity by increasing some signaling factors (5, 6).

Exercise Increases Oxygen Supply to the Brain

The oxygen supply to the brain is increased when the heart starts pumping faster during exercise. This causes changes to the brain blood vessels, encouraging potential improvement in the executive function, such as working memory, self-control and flexible thinking (7).

A study from 2021 that was done in 48 adults suffering from mild cognitive impairment looked at the effect of exercise on blood circulation to the cerebrum, which is the largest part of the brain and is responsible for sensory impulses, higher intellectual function and motor activity (8, 9).

It was found that one year of moderate to vigorous exercise led to increased blood flow to the cerebrum and also cut down the risk of more cognitive decline.

This leads to the conclusion that regular physical activity helps in improving the blood flow to the vital parts of the brain along with reducing the risk of conditions associated with cognitive decline, such as stroke and Alzheimer’s disease (10, 11).

What Are The Benefits Of Exercise For Mental Health?

There are different mental health benefits to be experienced with regular exercise. Some of the common mental health benefits which are supported by research are:

Stress Relief: Exercise is one of the best natural stress reliever. Many must have experienced this benefit of exercise, which is finding some relief or a sense of lessening of burden after working out.  Exercise is considered to decrease stress by reducing the levels of hormones associated with stress, such as adrenaline and cortisol (12).

Animal studies have shown that regular exercise provides resistance to different stressors (13).

So, exercise just doesn’t help in reducing or managing stress, it also helps in preventing stress in the first place.

A study from 2015 done in a group that was sedentary, but highly trained young men showed that those who finished 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise had more resilience to any acute stressor than those who did not work out at all (14).

Exercise Improves Mood

This is another positive mental health benefit of exercise which is improving the overall mood. There are many studies which show that regular physical activity is linked with a reduction in negative thoughts and a more positive mood (2, 15). So, if you are feeling sad for some reason then exercising is a great way to feeling better and getting a more positive outlook.

Exercise Helps With Self Esteem and Self-Confidence

This is another mental health benefit, which is associated with exercise that is improving self-confidence and boosting positive personal image. Many studies have shown that regular exercise helps in building confidence and also contributes to a better improved body image (16).

Helps with Better Sleep

The quality and quantity of sleep is closely linked with mental health and many people overlook this fact. There are many reasons that affect the quality of the sleep and the level of physical activity seems to more influential than anything.

A review from 2017 done on 34 studies revealed that exercise in any form helps with better sleep and its duration (17).  

Exercise also helps with sleep onset latency, which is the time it takes for a person to fall asleep (18).

Helps With Better Memory and Thinking

One of the many benefits of exercise is it can help with thinking and memory. According to studies, regular exercise improves mental clarity and also improves attention span and working memory (19, 20).

Moreover, exercise has also shown to be beneficial in decreasing cognitive decline in adults over the age of 50 (21, 22).

Regular exercise has lot of mental health benefits. It also helps in alleviating the symptoms of certain mental health issues, such as:

Exercise and Depression: Depression is a prevalent and common mental health condition all over the world, with around 5% of the global adult population suffering from it in varying degrees (23).

The primary symptoms of depression are (23): low self-worth, feeling down all the time, loss of interest in activities that were previously pleasurable; disrupted sleep and suicidal thoughts.  Regular exercise has proved to be beneficial in managing the symptoms of depression, with the most significant benefit being increased self-esteem, lesser negative thoughts and better life satisfaction (23).

A research review from 2018 showed that aerobic exercise can have antidepressant effects (24).

Exercise also help in reducing the depressive thoughts by improving the levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which is a vital protein in the brain responsible for cell growth and learning (25, 26).

Not only aerobic exercise, any type of exercise whether it is playing sports or weight lifting has been shown to improve the symptoms of depression.

Exercise and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

This is again a common mental health problem (27).

Individuals suffering from ADHD experience difficulty in focusing, overactivity and have impulsive behavior. The cause for this condition is neurotransmitters imbalance in the brain, more so the dopamine (28).

Treatment for ADHD is done with medications that improve concentration and reduce impulsive behavior; however, research shows that exercise can be an excellent add-on treatment for ADHD.

Studies have shown that physical exercise helps in regulating the levels of dopamine in the brain, improve attention in children and adults with ADHD along with improving executive functions (29, 30).

There are many studies that make use of aerobic exercise in ADHD interventions, so it is important to incorporate a combination of resistance training and aerobic workouts in the daily exercise regime to get maximum health benefits (31).

Exercise and Anxiety: Everyone of us have experienced anxiety at some time or the other. However, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a condition where the person feels excessive worry or anxiety all the time. Some of the common symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder are (32): fatigue, restlessness, sleeplessness and irritability.

Cognitive behavioral therapy along with medications and meditation are some of the treatment methods for GAD.

Regularly doing purposeful exercise is a great alternative method for managing the symptoms of GAD. A research review from 2018 showed that exercise can be a viable treatment for anxiety disorder and also concluded that the benefits of higher intensity exercise were more than that of lower intensity exercise regimens (33).

Exercise and Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is a serious mental health condition characterized by unusual shifts in energy levels and mood which affects a person’s ability to concentrate and also affects the ability to finish daily tasks (34). Bipolar disorder consists of the person having episodes of depression and mania, and in some cases there can be a combination of symptoms.

Traditional treatment for this condition consists of antipsychotic medications, mood-stabilizing medications and psychotherapy. In addition to these conventional treatment methods, exercise is greatly beneficial in managing symptoms of bipolar disorder (35).

Regular physical activity greatly helps in the mood shifts and encourages an improved sense of well-being in individuals suffering from bipolar disorder (36).

Weight gain is a common side effect reported by many patients of the prescribed medications for bipolar disorder. Exercising can help in managing this effect (37).

Exercise and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a condition characterized by a person having uncontrollable recurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) with a strong urge to repeat them over and over (38).

Depending on the severity, this condition can potentially affect all aspects of the patient’s life, including school, work and home life. Medications, such as serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs) in combination with cognitive behavior therapy help in resolving these specific behaviors. A regimented exercise program can be a great alternative treatment method for OCD.

A study from 2017 done in 56 adults suffering from OCD showed that there was a substantial decrease in the symptoms of OCD after a 12-week aerobic exercise program. Other than this, there were also reductions in anxiety and depression levels, which are the associated symptoms of OCD (39).

Exercise and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition which can develop in people who have undergone scary, shocking or dangerous event in their life (40). People suffering from PTSD tend to experience bad dreams, flashbacks or frightening thoughts in relation to their initial traumatic experience. They also will feel edgy, get easily startled and have trouble with sleeping.

The treatment for PTSD consists of taking antidepressant medications and psychotherapy to help to overcome the negative feelings linked with the past traumatic events. Recent years have seen exercise as a common complementary treatment approach towards many mental and physical health issues.

There are various studies which show that regular physical activity helps in decreasing the symptoms of PTSD in different ways, such as (41):

  • Improving the brain function.
  • Desensitizing an individual to internal arousal cues.
  • Increasing neuroplasticity.
  • Regulating the levels of hormones that are associated with stress.
  • The inclusion of regular exercise along with traditional treatment methods is seen to be greatly beneficial in treating the symptoms of PTSD.

How to Stay Motivated For Exercise?

Find out the ideal time of the day like some individuals are morning people; whereas, some are active in the evening or at night. Find out your “active” time and frame your exercise regime around it.

Always set attainable goals for staying motivated. Always set small goals and celebrate the wins.

Try to perform those exercises that are enjoyable to you, as it is difficult to be motivated in exercising if the activities are not something that you like.

Working out in a group or with a friend helps with the motivation part and allows you to stay more consistent.

If you can hire a personal trainer and they can better guide you through your exercises and also encourage and motivate to get the most out of each session and keep coming back.

What is the Role of Diet in Mental Health?

Diet is an important part, which is commonly ignored when it comes to mental health. Consuming a nutritious diet helps in promoting a healthy body and healthy mind. A good diet helps in regulating energy levels and helps in cutting down the risk of some diseases (42, 43).

There are many studies which show that consumption of a well-balanced diet helps in promoting better mental health and also helps in preventing certain mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression (43).

Some of the possible ways to enhance your diet for a better mental health are:

Healthy fats: Consume healthy fats like, nut butters, avocado, fatty fish and olive oil.

Avoid junk food: Restrict processed food intake. Make sure to eat lots of vegetables and fruits.

Eat enough fiber: Try to eat whole grains and complex carbohydrates to get enough fiber.

Don’t forget the protein: Lean proteins such as fish, chicken, turkey, tofu, and lean cuts of pork or beef is greatly beneficial for physical as well as mental health.

Stay hydrated: Drink lots of fluids for hydration. Avoid sweetened beverages.

By doing all of the above, one can maintain a good mental health through diet and have sufficient levels of energy along with cutting down the risk of some diseases.


A significant percentage of the worldwide population suffers from mental health conditions. Psychotherapy and medications are some common traditional treatment modalities for mental health issues; however, regular exercise has proven to be a good add-on treatment for these conditions. Exercise encourages the release of hormones in the brain, which helps in reducing the stress and improves mood, self-confidence, sleep quality, thinking and memory.

Not only this, regular exercise has a positive effect on various mental health conditions, such as depression, generalized anxiety disorder, ADHD, OCD, bipolar disorder and PTSD.

Consistency is the key when it comes to exercising for mental health benefits. Set small attainable goals, exercise at a time when you are active and find a exercise buddy to motivate you.  A healthy diet is also important along with exercising to improve mental health.


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Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:June 6, 2024

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