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The Amazing Power of Exercise to Better Your Mental Health

Updated: 2 days ago

Mental health issues are of major concern in the U.S. and globally.

Odds are, you have experienced the effects of mental and emotional difficulties either with yourself, in your family, among friends, and in communities where you work or live. My family has a long history of inherited emotional issues that has spanned generations. I know the toll it can take on our lives.

You can access an audio version of this post here.

Mental health issues are widespread throughout the US and the global population. It is estimated that 23.1% of US adults experienced a mental health issue in 2022 while 6% experienced a major mental health condition. Among veterans, 5.2 million experienced a behavioral health issue.

The World Health Organization estimates that one in every eight people worldwide (970 million people) live with some form of mental disorder. All estimated to cost $2.5 trillion each year.

Economically, the impact of emotional issues is estimated to be a loss of $1 trillion in global productivity. Gender wise 51.7% of women and only 40% of men received proper mental health services. Age wise, young adults (18-25) report the highest rate of mental health issues at 33.7%.

Maintaining mental health is something we all need to consider seriously.

Take a mental health assessment to see how you’re doing from Psychology Today.

Treatment For Mental Health

According to the Mayo Clinic, treatment for mental illness normally consists of psychiatric medications and psychotherapy in its many manifestations.

Now, there is an option you may consider as a complement to traditional treatment or as a lifestyle approach to maintaining your longterm emotional health.

In recent years, exercise has come to be seen by many as a highly effective approach to the treatment of mental and emotional conditions.

I’m lucky that I come from a family where exercise was part of the landscape. When my dad died, I took to taking long walks and just cried as I walked along the local park. To this day, I find a long walk, a resistance workout or a yoga session as a way to lower anxiety and raise my mood in times of stress.

I’ve been very happy to learn that a substantial amount of current scientific research has pointed toward exercise as being a front line treatment for mental and emotional health. What for me was a personal experience has now been scientifically proven. Let’s take a closer look.

Exercise For Wellness

Exercise may be the best kept secret to attain and sustain your mental wellbeing!

In recent years, exercise has come to be seen by many as a highly effective approach to the treatment of mental and emotional conditions. Scientific research demonstrating the effectiveness of exercise in the promotion of mental health has become plentiful.

A recent study out of Australia in February of 2023, and published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine is the most comprehensive review to date on the benefits of physical activity on mental illness. It is a systematic review with meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials (the gold standard of research) designed to increase physical activity in an adult population suffering from depression, anxiety and psychological distress.

“Exercise is a scientifically proven mood booster.” — Men’s Health

The study included ninety-seven reviews (1039 trials and 128,119 participants).

The results of the study strikingly concluded that:

—- physical activity is very beneficial for alleviating the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and distress.

— exercises taking place over a relatively short duration, 12 weeks or shorter, were effective at reducing symptoms.

— the greatest benefits were seen in populations with depression, anxiety, postpartum depression, HIV, and kidney disease.

— exercises of high intensity saw the greatest improvement for depression and anxiety while exercise of longer duration but low intensity had less effect.

Here is a short video on the importance of exercise by Dr Peter Attia.

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How Does Exercise Make Us Feel Better?

Exercise benefits mental health directly by;

  • Releasing brain chemicals serotonin, endorphins, and endocannabinoids that significantly improve mood

  • Fostering deep sleep

  • Reducing stress

  • Enhancing memory

  • Reducing anxiety

  • Alleviating depressive symptoms

  • Improving self-esteem

  • Improving cognitive function

  • Enhancing social engagement

  • Helping to manage weight

  • Promoting physical balance and stability

  • Heightening a sense of control and ability to cope

  • Increasing energy levels

Stunningly, the study found that exercise is more effective in treating anxiety and depression than the standard treatments of psychotherapy and medications.

According to the study author, Dr. Ben Singh:

“Physical activity is 1.5 times more effective at reducing mild-to-moderate symptoms of depression, psychological stress, and anxiety than medication or cognitive behavior therapy.”

In spite of this finding, in the US, exercise is not considered a front line treatment for emotional and psychological issues. Hopefully, in light of the research findings this may change.

Exercise is a great way to feel good about yourself, raise your self-esteem, establish a positive body image, and increase your sense of control.

Either 15 minutes of intense activity or an hour of moderate activity seems to be enough to lower the risk of depression.

Exercise As Preventing the Onset of Emotional Issues

The ability of exercise to alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety is well-established. But can exercise prevent or diminish the development of mental illness and promote mental health?

A recent study indicates that exercise may, indeed, prevent the onset of depression.

In November of 2019, a study was published attempting to clarify if individuals with high genetic vulnerability to depression would benefit from physical activity. The researchers used a biobank containing 7,968 individuals of European ancestry. The biobank integrated electronic health records, lifestyle survey responses, and genomic data. The researchers adjusted for BMI, employment status, educational attainment, and prior depression.

The results indicated that individuals with greater genetic risk “are more likely to avoid episodes of depression if they were physically active.” Overall, high levels of physical activity were associated with reduced odds of depression “across all levels of genetic vulnerability…”

The authors concluded that prescribing regular physical activity may be an “effective strategy for preventing depression.” And that any activity is better than none. 15 minutes of intense activity or an hour of moderate activity seems to be enough to lower the risk of depression.

Exercise as a preventative to emotional difficulties is promising. Further research will hopefully replicate these results.

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Consider combining all three approaches to mental health, as appropriate for your situation. Together, medication, psychotherapy, and exercise (movement) may be the best way to recover and reduce symptoms. It’s also a way to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Speak with your medical and/or mental health advisor to find out what may be best for you.

Is There One Best Exercise For Mental Health?

The National Institutes of Health has identified jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, and dancing as activities that reduce anxiety and depression by both alleviating and preventing mental health issues. Other research has found resistance training, yoga, Pilates, hiking, etc. as helpful in this regard. All in all, most kinds of physical activity can have a positive impact on your emotional wellbeing. Feel free to pick and choose the activity you enjoy. I would only add that aerobic training of some sort may be the overall best choice for improved mental wellness.

I personally find brisk walking and extended yoga sessions as the best at producing a state of calm and confidence in my daily life. Recently, I added isometric sessions that surprisingly uplift my mood. I’m addicted.

What To Do If You Have Physical Limitations

A note about those of us who can’t do many of the exercises mentioned in this post. There are many ways to be physically active. The internet abounds with videos for chair yoga, chair based movements, modified exercises, etc. Talk with your doctor, insurance representative, physical therapist or disability advisor to find resources in your community that can help you stay active in spite of limitations. You may be surprised at the number of resources available to you.

You don’t have to go to a gym or a special place if that’s not possible. With a little effort you can find the resources and ideas you need to stay healthy.

Getting Started On An Exercise Program

When you are feeling depressed and anxious it’s hard to get yourself to exercise, especially on a regular basis. Depression can rob you of the energy you need and anxiety can make it very uncomfortable to get to the gym or track.

Here are some steps you can take to get started.

Getting Exercise Into Your Life

Here is a short video on getting started with your exercise program.

See Your Doctor - Before embarking on any exercise program, especially if you haven’t been active for any length of time, see your physician to get checked out. Discuss with him or her what you plan to do and what your goals are.

Take Small Steps - Be realistic about what you are going to accomplish. Setting extravagant goals often don’t work out. Let your goals be achievable. You don’t have to run a marathon. Start with short walks around the block. You certainly don’t want to make yourself feel worse than when you started. You can even take short exercise breaks during the day lasting no more than 10-15 minutes. You don’t have to do an hour long workout. It all adds up by the end of the day.

Find Things You Like To Do - One of the best ways to stick with an exercise program, is to find something you like to do and keep doing it. It can be a regular form of exercise such as walking, jogging, resistance training, bike riding, pickle ball, etc. It can also be things such as gardening, house work or a fixit project. Build up to more standard exercises or sports activities.

Related: Find The Exercise You Like To Do

Find A Partner - Finding a friend or exercise partner has many benefits. Those with exercise partners tend to stay more motivated and keep exercising more often. Exercising with others may be more inspirational and help you reach your fitness goals. And it can be a lot of fun.

Create A Reward System - Whenever you meet an exercise or fitness goal it’s good to celebrate. Think about ways to make yourself feel good about your accomplishment. Make it meaningful and something you enjoy.

Don’t Be Too Hard On Yourself - Starting an exercise program can be daunting. The first few months can feel strange and difficult. Keep to some short-term goals that you can accomplish. Working out too hard or being unrealistic can be discouraging and you can hurt yourself. Be realistic and go easy on the internal demands. Listen to your body.

Exercise Outdoors - Studies have found that people who exercise outdoors in nature find it more enjoyable and tend to stick to the program better. They also report more enthusiasm, vitality, pleasure and self-esteem. If you can, find an outdoor route that gives you time with some green space.

Keep A Diary - Keeping an exercise diary is a great way to track progress, maintain your motivation, and learning what works for you. Seeing your progress can really help your state of mind, keep you committed to your goals, and even inspire you to greater levels of fitness.

Stay Motivated - Finding the right motivation to keep exercising can be difficult. Motivation is something that has to come from inside. Exercise is often something we are doing because someone else is telling us we should do it. Finding the internal motivation is key to keeping up an exercise program.

Remember, no matter your physical condition, start any exercise program slowly. Start easy and work toward greater effort.

Final Thoughts

It’s safe to say that exercise/movement improves mental health by reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. It has been shown to improve self-image, brain function, foster regenerative sleep, etc. It can help by creating more social interaction and reducing obesity. Exercise can reduce blood pressure, increase energy levels and overall fitness. All of this can add up to more stable emotional states in spite of genetic vulnerability to mental illness.

It doesn’t take a lot of exercise or expensive gym memberships to see results. Even moderate expenditure of time and energy can have significant impact on your state of mind. Seriously consider investing your time in an exercise program. It will be well worth it.

If you have never exercised or are out of shape it is especially important to take the time to speak to your physician, health advisor or mental health practitioner to find the best path for you. Everyone is different. It’s not a one size fits all circumstance. Create your own path to health and wellness. Live your life fully.

Feel free to contact me at with any questions you my have about exercise/movement.

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Important Mental Health Information: If you or a loved one is in an emotional crisis, here are numbers to call for assistance:

Alert: Any information contained in this blog post is not meant to diagnose or treat any mental or physical condition. It is for informational and educational purposes only. Please consult your physician or mental health advisor with any questions you may have.

Dr. Oliva, ND, LMSW, is the founder of the health and fitness website Transform Your Life. He is a New York State licensed Master Social Worker, holds a doctorate in traditional Naturopathy, is a board certified Holistic Health Practitioner, in addition to being a health and fitness writer.


He is a member of the American Naturopathic Medical Association, the American Association of Drugless Practitioners, the Society of Complementary and Holistic Practitioners, and the National Association of Social Workers. Dr. Oliva is a former Adjunct Assistant Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College (CUNY), as well as director emeritus of the Brooklyn College Magner Career Center, and a former clinical supervisor of PhD psychology and social work interns at the Personal Counseling Center. He has earned certification in Mindfulness meditation from Molloy College.

Dr. Oliva received Zen meditation and Hatha Yoga training at the Ruah Institute as well as tutelage in Chinese Chan meditation under Master Sheng-Yen.


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