Exercise and your Mental Health

For a long time now it has been suggested that exercise and physical activity provides many benefits for mental health. Throughout history exercise has been used to prevent disease and promote good health and wellbeing. The information in this article has been taken from various journals and articles written to investigate the effectiveness of exercise and physical activity on mental health and mental disorders.

Although people with depression tend to be less physically active than non-depressed individuals, it has been shown that increased levels of aerobic activity or strength training reduce depressive symptoms significantly. Anxiety symptoms and panic disorder also improve with regular exercise, and beneficial effects, which can be seen below, appear to equal meditation or relaxation. However excessive physical activity may lead to overtraining and exhaustion and trigger psychological symptoms that are very similar to depression symptoms. So it is important to listen to your body and rest when it is needed, e.g. every second or third day.

Below are some of the main benefits that have been shown to appear in individuals who undertook a regular exercise regime with poor mental health.

Benefits of Physical activity

1. Physical activity and exercise appear to alleviate symptoms associated with mild-to-moderate depression.

2. Physical activity and exercise are associated with such mental health benefits as improved self-concept and confidence (at least in children and adolescents) and social skills (at least in mentally retarded individuals).

3. Physical activity and exercise are associated with reduction of symptoms of anxiety and perhaps improved mood.

4. Physical activity and exercise may alter some aspects of the stress response and coronary-prone behaviour.

5. Physical activity and exercise might provide a beneficial adjunct to alcohol and other substance abuse programs.

With all this taken into consideration there is an argument that exercise & physical activity is underutilised in mental health care centres. Now having said that I am in no position to criticise any of those organisations but rarely do I hear of regular exercise programs being introduced to help with poor mental health. With evidence showing the above benefits of introducing physical activity to people with poor mental health it only makes sense to ensure this approach is at least explored in all mental health centres and organisations.

Although I am massively in favour of introducing exercise and fitness into people’s lives with poor mental health I do have to show both sides of the argument. With all these positives there is some evidence to show that there are some prosed psychological harms of exercise. The main ones being:

  • Compulsiveness
  • Fatigue
  • Addiction to exercise
  • Escape or avoidance of problems
  • Over-competitiveness 
  • Overexertion

As a former middle to long distance running athlete I can relate to the Over-competitiveness as I was used to winning and being successful with my team and when things didn’t go right or to plan I remember feeling extremely down or in some sense depressed for a number of days/weeks if a race was a disaster. As I am currently training in a bodybuilding fashion the same argument can be made with the topic of body dysmorphia but that is an argument for another day. 


To conclude there is massive evidence to show that exercise and physical activity provides many benefits to individuals with poor mental health. The negatives that are mentioned in some research are mainly related to excess amounts of physical activity. It would also seem that more action in relation to introducing individuals suffering with poor mental health into fitness or physical activity to promote some of the main benefits mentioned above and therefore improving their quality of life!!

By Colm Murray.


i    C. Barr Taylor, MD, James F. Sallis, PhD, & Richard Needle, PhD - The Relation of Physical Activity and Exercise to Mental Health

ii    Physical Activity and Mental Health Scott A. Paluska, Thomas L. Schwenk (Sports Medicine, Volume 29, Issue 3)

iii    P. Callaghan - Exercise: a neglected intervention in mental health care? (Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health NursingVolume 11, Issue 4, , August 2004)

i    Morgan, W. P: Negative addiction in runners. Physician Sportsmed 7: 57-70 (1979).

ii    Little, J. C.: Neurotic illness in fitness fanatics. Psychiatric Ann 9: 55-56 (1979).