“Why should I even bother exercising?”: The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

We’ve all been there. We’ve all promised ourselves that “tomorrow is the day I’ll start exercising”. Even when that does take place, this wave of motivation is only temporary and lasts from a couple of days to months. That’s because most of the time you don’t have a good enough reason to continue, the “why” isn’t strong enough. So, what’s in it for you? Generally, everyone knows that exercise is ‘good’ for you. We’ve heard about the benefits of exercise in prevention of disease, from the most common cause of death: heart disease, to diabetes and cancer9. But what about its effects on our mental health and wellbeing?

What does ‘exercise’ precisely mean?

In most studies exploring the benefits of exercise, the word exercise is referring to aerobic/cardiovascular exercises such as jogging or running. However, other studies have also shown that other forms of exercise display the same positive effects on your wellbeing, be it yoga or weightlifting1. So, in fact, the benefits are there for you to reap. Regardless of whatever form of physical activity you choose to follow. Regarding how much exercise, the NHS recommends at least 2.5 hours of moderate/1.25 hours of vigorous intensity a week.1

Depression and anxiety

In the demanding lifestyles of these times and the negativity present everywhere around the world, it is no surprise that most people have experienced anxiety and/or depression. So, in today’s society could exercise be an underrated antidote to these ever so common mental illnesses? Absolutely. Research keeps confirming again and again that regular exercise greatly improves our mental health and helps reduce depression, anxiety, and feelings of stress.3 Two analyses that combined the results of multiple studies, conducted on a total of 42,000 people with anxiety and 48,000 with depression, showed that exercise reduced anxiety levels, and depression scores.3 However, it is extremely important to acknowledge the complexity of these mood disorders. Exercise may help to an extent, but that is not always the case.

Day-to-day moods and stress

You don’t have to have depression or anxiety to be ‘eligible’ for the effects of exercise on your mood. Even just 20 minutes of aerobic exercise were shown to improve mood for several hours. If you already feel anxious or down, or maybe even angry and irritated, exercise’s upbringing effect on your mood will be even stronger.3 Well that makes sense doesn’t it? Have you ever worked out and felt worse after finishing? Not really. This is due to a number of reasons, one of them is called the distraction hypothesis3. While exercising you are distracted from whatever is frustrating you or from the negative mood you were in, so by the time you finish working out, that negative mood you were in prior to exercising usually would’ve been lifted.

Dementia and cognitive functioning

One aspect of mental wellbeing is cognitive function and memory, and so exercise also plays a part here. Dementia and Alzheimer’s are known cognitive impairments for older age groups, and a study shows that physical activity in middle aged people significantly decreased their risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s5. Furthermore, in elder patients already experiencing some degree of cognitive impairment, exercise helped improve their cognitive functioning1.

What’s the science behind all this?

Several hormones and neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers in our brains, are the main agents behind this positive boost in mood we experience from exercise. Hormones get released by a secreting cell and go to a target cell. Greeted by their own specific receptor on the target cell, these hormones then cause a cascade of events inside the cell. On a larger scale, this results in an effect, such as a change in mood. Regarding hormones, exercise aids the secretion of endorphins and endocannabinoids.2 These bring about feelings of euphoria. This partly explains the change in our mood upon exercising, like the ‘runner’s high’ feeling people get after running – notice the words endorphin (morphine) and endocannabinoid (substances similar to those in cannabis, that we produce ourselves), these chemicals are the ones involved with the effect of these substances, further explaining the reasoning behind these post workout sedation and elation feelings. Another hormone, cortisol, is increased upon exercise acutely. Hours after exercise however, it is inactivated into its passive state, cortisone, lowering the amount of this stress hormone accordingly. Hence, avoiding long term elevated cortisol levels which leads to anxiety and other disorders2. The mode of action of neurotransmitters is different; They get released by the end of one nerve cell or neuron, to the beginning of another, again greeted by their own receptor. Dopamine, the well-known feel-good chemical, is increased from aerobic exercise. It’s involved in our memory, so improvements in memory have also been observed2. The other neurotransmitter, serotonin, is commonly known as the happiness hormone. Like dopamine, it’s also involved in memory enhancement and its levels also increase upon exercise. This happens because normally serotonin’s precursor competes with other chemicals to get into the brain. Upon exercise your muscles take up these competitors, reducing their amount and allowing this precursor to get into your brain more easily and make more serotonin2.

So…what now?

If you don’t exercise already, you now have reasons to start! Like everything in life, you won’t know unless you try it, so start with something you think you’d enjoy and move on from there. Once again, no matter the form of exercise, they will all help improve mental wellbeing. 25% of adults in the UK are physically inactive4, let’s change that. There is a vast array of mobile phone apps to help you kickstart your workout routine, this link here provides a lot of options.

~This article was written by Youssef Elbehairy on behalf of the LIVE with Scientists team~




  1. Exercise. NHS. (2020). Retrieved 7 June 2020, from https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/.
  2. Heijnen, S., Hommel, B., Kibele, A., & Colzato, L. (2016). Neuromodulation of Aerobic Exercise—A Review. Frontiers In Psychology, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01890
  3. Mikkelsen, K., Stojanovska, L., Polenakovic, M., Bosevski, M., & Apostolopoulos, V. (2017). Exercise and mental health. Maturitas106, 48-56. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.maturitas.2017.09.003
  4. Physical inactivity. Ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk. (2019). Retrieved 6 June 2020, from https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/health/diet-and-exercise/physical-inactivity/latest.
  5. Rovio, S., Kåreholt, I., Helkala, E., Viitanen, M., Winblad, B., & Tuomilehto, J. et al. (2005). Leisure-time physical activity at midlife and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The Lancet Neurology, 4(11), 705-711. https://doi.org/10.1016/s1474-4422(05)70198-8
  6. Science Learning Hub. (2011). Hormone action [Image]. Retrieved 11 June 2020, from https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/1836-hormonal-control-of-digestion.
  7. Sherman, C. (2017). Getting the Message Across [Image]. Retrieved 11 June 2020, from https://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/nida-notes/2017/03/impacts-drugs-neurotransmission.
  8. The Open University. (2020). Monoaminergic neurotransmitters and the regulation of mood, emotion and cognitive function. [Image]. Retrieved 11 June 2020, from https://www.open.edu/openlearn/science-maths-technology/exploring-the-relationship-between-anxiety-and-depression/content-section-2.1.
  9. Warburton, D. (2006). Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 174(6), 801-809. https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.051351

2,318 thoughts on ““Why should I even bother exercising?”: The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise”

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