Tackling Mental Health Issues with Exercise

The mechanisms underpinning the connectedness of physical exercise to mental health and wellbeing are complex and multi-layered. In a previous article, I looked at the brain and the physiological changes that take place. In this article, I’m going to discuss the psychological side of things and how the chemical changes induced by exercise, go on to affect mood, behaviour and feelings, therefore playing a big part in tackling mental health issues.

The World Health Organisation now ranks depression as the single biggest contributor to global disability with anxiety disorders ranking sixth. The last published figures in England state that 6 people in every 100 have anxiety problems and 3 in every 100 have depression, with as much as 12% of the UK population suffering from depression each year.

Treatment of mental health issues is usually via anti-depressant medication.

Could exercise play a greater part in tackling mental health issues?

A number of studies have demonstrated how exercise can reduce anxiety and depression symptoms. The strongest evidence for exercise’s role in the treatment of mental health is on depression, with both aerobic and strength training having beneficial impacts. Even more, there are multiple extra benefits of exercise compared to anti-depressant medication: few side-effects, very low cost, it doesn’t have the negative stigma, it’s available to everyone and it’s a great empowering and self-management tool.

The evidence for exercise

  • The government’s Start Active, Stay Active report states that adults participating in regular daily activity have approximately a 20-30% lower risk of developing depression and dementia. That is significant.
  • Other studies have shown that exercise improved symptoms in people diagnosed with depression when compared with no treatment or a controlled intervention, such as social activity when seated.
  • A large review of 49 randomised control trials investigated the effect of exercise on anxiety and found physical activity to significantly reduce anxiety when compared to a control group.
  • The benefits of exercise seem to be elevated for individuals with greater levels of anxiety and depression as there is more room for potential change.
  • Aerobic exercises using large muscle groups, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking and dancing were all shown to boost mood and alleviate negative mental health issues over a period of 10 weeks.
  • One study found that running for 15 minutes a day reduces the risk of major depression by 26% and that maintaining an exercise schedule of the longer term has also been shown to prevent relapse.
  • Interestingly, some research comparing physical exercise effectiveness with that of medication or cognitive behavioural therapy, another type of treatment, has found no significant differences between the interventions.

Why is exercise so powerful in alleviating the mental health burden?

There are a number of theories with more research still needed, but it’s clear that exercise can have a number of positive impacts on mental health on multiple levels.

On the physiological level, we’ve seen how exercise impacts the brain. Crucially for those with depression, exercise can stimulate parts of the brain that aren’t responsive during depressed periods. Physical activity promotes all kinds of neural growth and brain activity that cause greater feelings of wellbeing.

Exercise has a key social side too. It gets people out of the house and interacting with others. Also, completing an exercise session really does give a sense of achievement, which is heavily linked to increases in self-esteem and confidence.

Here’s a quick rundown on how exercise can positively impact mental health:

  • Increases self-esteem
  • Increases social interaction
  • Stimulates the release of beneficial brain chemicals 
  • Improves confidence
  • Enhances cognitive function
  • Boosts mood
  • Impacts the brain’s reaction to stress
  • Gives someone a purpose and focus
  • Acts as a distraction from negative thoughts

The ‘dose’ of exercise doesn’t have to be particularly high either to stimulate internal change. Thirty minutes a day of moderate exercise is a great ball-park figure. Analyses of studies in combating anxiety revealed that exercise interventions were most effective at moderate or high intensity. 

The evidence points to exercise being a key remedy for mental health issues. If not wholly then certainly as part of a rounded solution. There currently seems to be too much reliance on a solely medicated solution, whereas it seems clear that exercise can either act as a standalone treatment or as part of a combination of treatments in treating mental health disorders. It certainly shouldn’t be overlooked as an intervention.

Take-Home Messages

  • Exercise significantly reduces the risk of developing depression and can stimulate parts of the brain that aren’t responsive during depressive periods.
  • Scientific studies have found physical activity to significantly reduce anxiety when compared to control groups.
  • Exercise has many, many positive impacts on mental health, such as increasing self-esteem and confidence, increasing cognitive functioning, focus and the brain’s reaction to stress.


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