Can Exercise Improve Mental Health?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated October 9, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Exercising can have benefits for physical and mental health. Research has found that exercise can lower blood pressure, ease symptoms of depression, improve sleep, and reduce your risk of developing heart disease. 

While it can be valuable to seek support from your primary care physician for guidance on medication and counseling referrals, exercise can be a coping skill in addition to these treatments. This article will explore the relationship between physical and mental fitness and examine how regular physical activity may improve your overall health and well-being.

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Wondering If Lifestyle Changes Can Improve Your Mental Health?

Exercise And Mental Health Connection

Many individuals living with stress and anxiety look to nonpharmacologic methods to treat their symptoms due to the unwanted side effects that accompany many medications. While medication can benefit some people, supplementing treatment with alternative interventions, like exercise and healthy lifestyle modifications, is an option for those looking to improve their quality of life and address health problems. 

Multiple studies have found that exercise can relieve stress and anxiety. This decrease in negative emotions can be attributed to the added levels of endorphins and serotonin that exercising produces. These neurochemicals are known to improve one’s mood and sense of well-being. Other benefits of exercise include the following: 

  • Improved sleep hygiene 
  • Improved memory and cognitive functioning
  • Increased energy throughout the day
  • Increased self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Motivation to choose healthy methods to handle stress
  • Improved mood and outlook on life
  • Positivity and optimism 
  • A decrease in stress and anxiety

Exercise can relieve stress and anxiety due to physiological processes in the body and mental processes, such as distraction and mindfulness. When you exercise, you can focus solely on the physical task at hand and let go of any worries or stress you are experiencing. This active form of mindfulness is a healthy coping mechanism that frees you from external responsibilities and allows you to focus on the present state of your body and mind. 

Exercising To Supplement Treatment For Mental Illness

When people think of caring for their mental health, they may think of writing in their journals or socializing. While these are helpful methods for nurturing your mental health, exercise can be a beneficial addition to your routine. Whether you take a long walk during lunch or garden in the mornings before work, adding these exercises can supplement your current mental health treatments and provide additional health benefits.Regular exercise has also been proven to aid in the symptoms of several mental illnesses, including the following: 
  • Major Depressive Disorder: MDD is a mental illness characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, anxiousness, or emptiness with a loss of interest in daily activities. 

  • Schizophrenia: Schizophrenia is a severe mental illness that affects how people interpret reality; symptoms may include disorganized thinking and speech, hallucinations, and delusions. 

  • Anxiety Disorders: Anxiety disorders are mental illnesses that may include symptoms of intense fear or worry, including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobias, and other anxiety disorders listed in the DSM-5.

  • Substance Use Disorders: Substance use disorders are a category of mental illnesses involving addiction or dependency on substances.* 

  • Bipolar Disorder: Formerly known as manic depression, bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme shifts in mood that range from depression to disruptive emotional highs called hypomania and mania.  

  • Borderline Personality Disorder: BPD is a personality disorder that can impact one’s thoughts and feelings about themselves, potentially leading to low self-esteem and unstable relationships.

*If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

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Types Of Exercise To Try 

The idea may seem overwhelming if you are new to fitness routines or exercise. However, exercise can be adapted to your body and needs. You don’t have to run a marathon or visit a gym seven days a week to improve your physical health. 

The following are a few physical activities and exercise routines you can try to take advantage of their mental health benefits: 

  • Yoga for stretching, strength, and mindfulness

  • High-intensity interval training (HIIT) for intense cardiovascular work in an upbeat atmosphere

  • Personal weightlifting training to strengthen the mind and the body

  • Learning a new sport (such as surfing or horseback riding)

  • Rock climbing outside or at a recreation center

  • Hiking outside to enjoy nature and take time for yourself

  • Running outside to improve your cardiovascular health

  • Practicing Pilates with friends to achieve better balance and core stability

  • Ice skating 

  • Aerial sports like aerial silks or Lyra 

Whatever activity you choose, exercise can have the same benefits in all forms. Exercise removes toxins from your body while releasing endorphins, hormones that reduce pain and can improve your mood. Beyond the mood-lifting effects of exercise, the benefits on your cardiovascular system may strengthen your heart while lowering your blood pressure. In addition, after thirty minutes of exercise, your body release dopamine, another mood-lifting hormone that can reduce depressive symptoms and improve resilience against stress and anxiety. 

Tips For Staying Motivated

With everyday stressors such as work or school, staying motivated to improve your mental health and supplement your therapy or medication routine can be challenging. To keep motivated during your routine, assess your current fitness level. 

Some people work with trainers to discover their fitness potential, while others may choose to make an educated guess based on their current workout routine. Once you determine your current fitness level, you can set your goals and come up with an exercise program. Goals might include performing ten push-ups in a row to running an entire mile without stopping.

After setting goals, determine when you can fit workouts into your schedule. Some people block out times on their calendars to work out, while others join with friends to work out together. Many people benefit from hiring a personal trainer to support them. However, you don’t need a professional to develop a routine. If you choose to hire one, a personal trainer can help you assess your current fitness level, create realistic goals, and challenge yourself during every workout. They may also follow up on these goals and help you hold yourself accountable for what you want to achieve. 

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Wondering If Lifestyle Changes Can Improve Your Mental Health?

Counseling Options 

Staying physically active can be therapeutic and help individuals manage stress, depression, and anxiety. However, when symptoms of a mental health condition interrupt daily life and affect your quality of life, you might find reaching out to a mental health professional valuable. Therapy can be beneficial alongside an exercise routine, and you may be able to do both on the same day by partaking in internet-based counseling. 

Current research reveals that online therapy platforms can support people living with various mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety. In a comprehensive review published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, researchers reviewed hundreds of studies to ascertain if online therapy was an effective mental health treatment method. They concluded that therapist-supported internet interventions were moderate to highly effective in treating various mental illnesses, including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and major depressive disorder.  

If you or someone you care for is living with a mental health challenge that negatively impacts their quality of life, therapy is available. Through an online platform like BetterHelp, you can talk to a therapist over the phone, via video chat, or through a live messaging session with a licensed therapist. As online therapy can be done on the go, you may be able to participate in therapy while walking or hiking, as long as your smart device has an internet connection. 


Exercise can be a highly beneficial form of self-care that can improve mood, reduce anxiety and stress, and help individuals cope with the impacts of various mental health conditions. If you’d like to learn more about exercise and its impact on the brain, consider contacting a counselor to discuss a self-care routine that fits your preferences. You don’t have to have a diagnosis or mental health condition to see a therapist, and many therapists are able to offer life advice, coping techniques, and support through common challenges.

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The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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