How Does Physical Activity Boost Mental Health?


I don’t think I’m alone in being told to “go take a walk and cool off” in situations of anger or stress. Physical exercise has been considered as an effective approach to improve mental health and better manage emotions, since what feels like forever. 

Exercise is one of those activities that have the potential to boost every aspect of a person’s well being – from improving flexibility, stamina and even confidence – its pros are endless. While looking sculpted and feeling energetic are great motivators, which usually keeps most people going back to exercising is the sense of well-being it imparts.

Just one hour of working out can boost your energy, help you sleep better at night, have better memory, and generally feel more relaxed.

But why does physical activity have such a huge impact on mental health? 

Read this article to know about the chemistry and physiology that makes exercise such a great practice for your body and even more so, for your mind. 

The art and science of working out

When we talk about fitness – we always talk about a sculpted body and gaining muscles. But whenever you push your body to its limits, there is also a complex chain of chemical reactions that happen within, that leaves people with a “high” akin to using morphine. These are due to the endorphins that the body releases that can suppress pain and create a positive feeling in the body.

While most stress is bad for the body, exercise is the only kind of physical stress that can create a positive response in the body. An increase in stress prompts the brain to produce chemicals like endorphin, norepinephrine and serotonin. Out of this, endorphins have the capability to suppress feelings of pain as well as act in a sedative capacity. They can also assist in reducing stress, boosting immunity, slowing the ageing process and invoke a general sense of well-being. 

There are also metabolites – small chemicals involved in the metabolic process that increase with more time spent working out. Some of these chemicals have the capability to break down fatty tissue, while others can help assist in building healthy tissues. The simple act of exercising for ten minutes can boost the number of metabolites in the body and in the long term, these metabolites can improve your metabolism.

But all of these factors are dependent on a person’s body chemistry such as how much endorphins will be released during an exercise session. There is also an apparent change in blood chemistry that happens while exercising that has an impact on your energy levels. When you exercise, the muscles use oxygen to convert the glucose in your bloodstream to usable energy. 

Mental Health

But how does any of this impact mental health? 

Imagine living with a condition like depression, where you struggle to even find the will to get out of bed on days. Being asked to exercise could seem like one of the hardest feats to achieve. But if you take into consideration the impact it can have on boosting your mental health, it’s worth every effort.

The above chemistry can help correct a lot of the chemical imbalances that contribute to depression and other feels of anxiety. In turn, improved activity levels will affect other aspects of your life – better sleep and appetite, more productivity, improved energy, better self-esteem and much more. Taking the time to exercise and take care of yourself can go a long way in boosting your confidence and improving your social life as well.

Another way that exercises often helps patients with mental health concerns is that it can act as an act of meditation. When a person is completely focused on their physical movements, their mind will shut out any negative thoughts, and the person will come away with better mental clarity.

On the social front, exercise is a great activity to share with loved ones. Walking, taking a dance exercise session or even a recreational sport can all help build relationships and boost a sense of belonging. Group classes can also be a great way to meet new people with whom you will share an interest. For those people whose poor mental health makes it hard to socialize, group classes are a way to dip their toes into being more socially active.

What’s the perfect exercise for me? 

This is a question that most nutritionists, trainers and anyone remotely related to fitness and wellbeing is probably tired of hearing. There is never a one-size-fits-all aspect when it comes to exercise. Picking an exercise is as personal as picking out your choice of attire. A person has to consider the time they have available, the kind of commitment they are willing to make, the goal they are working towards, their current fitness level, what they consider to be ‘fun”. These are all small questions that can together answer this question. 

While there are varying activities available that can help you be more active, there is only one exercise that works for all and that’s regular exercise. No matter what activity you choose, unless you are consistent and dedicated, it can’t offer any of the positive aspects that you are looking for. 

If you are looking to alleviate symptoms of depression, aerobic exercises are said to be the most effective. These exercises that get your heart racing can improve circulation in the body and can promote brain function and chemistry. It can also help you to lose weight and improve your stamina. 

According to most credible sources, adults are expected to do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. This can be from a brisk 30-minute jog to just playing basketball with your buddies or even power walking during your shopping sessions. 

Also Read: Fitness Tips for Men and Women in their 30s, 40s & 50s.

No matter what exercise you choose to boost your mental and physical health, choose one that you feel like you can stay committed to. There is no point in doing a fancy exercise if you don’t enjoy it or won’t keep going back to it. 

Because, in the case of mental health, just like with regards to physical health, exercise can only make the best impact, when practised regularly.

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