The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise, According to Experts

The benefits of exercise for mental health are extensive, research shows. Here's mega motivation to get stronger and healthier.

Friends wearing athletic gear lounging after workout outdoors
Photo: Getty Images

Here's some happy news that will rev up your exercise routine: The moment you head out on your run, launch into your spin class, or start your Pilates session, the benefits of working out kick in. "We see changes in the body within seconds," says Michele Olson, Ph.D., senior clinical professor of exercise physiology at Huntington University in Montgomery, Alabama. Your heart rate increases, blood is delivered to your muscles, and you start burning calories for fuel.

There's no denying the physical benefits of exercise are great, however, the benefits of exercise on mental health are equally exciting. Working out as little as 30 minutes of cardio five days a week can help improve the quality of your life, according to the Mayo Clinic. Exercise might not just make you feel better physically, but also mentally and emotionally.

Ahead, experts explain the benefits of exercising on mental health that you shouldn't overlook.

The Benefits of Exercise On Mental Health

Decreases Stress

"While it might seem counterintuitive, raising your heart rate can reverse stress-induced brain functions," says Joanne Frederick, L.P.C., a licensed mental health counselor based in Washington, D.C. Exercising stimulates the production of feel-good hormones, such as endorphins, which improves mood, she explains. (

Additionally, exercise can reduce the negative effects of stress, such as poor mood, irritability, lack of motivation, or sadness, according to the Mayo Clinic. "When you exercise, it makes the body's sympathetic and central nervous systems connect, which enhances the body's ability to respond and cope with stress," says Frederick. When the sympathetic and central nervous systems in the body connect and work together, it can protect your body against the effects of stress, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Helps with Depression and Anxiety

The production of hormones such as endorphins not only helps with stress management, but also reduces the risk of depression and anxiety, says Frederick. "Exercise is a mood booster and has been scientifically proven to decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression," she says. "Physical activity raises endorphins in the body, which are the brain's feel-good chemicals. Even light exercise throughout the week can be beneficial, [which is why] many doctors will recommend this to patients before prescribing medication." (

Improves Sleep

From improving your odds of fighting off disease to helping you feel recharged, the benefits of quality sleep are significant. If you're struggling with getting enough sleep, try incorporating exercise into your routine. "Exercise increases body temperature, which leads to calming the mind," explains Frederick. "It also helps to regulate the body's internal alarm clock that determines when we feel alert and tired. This is known as circadian rhythm. When we work out, we feel a 'good' kind of tired, which leads to better sleep."

Research shows that moderate aerobic exercise increases the amount of deep sleep you get, which is when your brain and body have a chance to rejuvenate, according to the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep. That said, you don't want to work out too close to bedtime, since the release of endorphins might keep you up at night, warns Frederick. It's best to avoid physical activity at least an hour before bedtime to give your body the chance to unwind, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

Increases Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence

Sticking to a workout routine over time will positively benefit your body, which can increase self-esteem and self-confidence, says Frederick. "[Exercising is] about increasing strength, improving endurance, and flexibility, and making it easier to be more active in life." The increase in confidence will come when you notice you're able to run a little faster or lift a little more all in hopes of getting to a healthier you.

Improves Cognitive Function

In addition, exercise improves mental health by boosting brain function, says Frederick. "Studies that used both humans and mice found that cardio exercise creates new brain cells," she says. Additionally, breaking a sweat may help improve your focus and concentration. Studies have found that your focus and concentration can increase for up to two hours after a 30-minute workout that increases heart rate. (

Bottom line? There are plenty of benefits of getting active that have nothing to do with how you look. If you're looking to create a fitness routine but don't know where to start, rest assured that the type of activity you choose doesn't matter. "The best exercise is the one that you enjoy and will stick with," says Haley Perlus, Ph.D., a psychologist whose expertise is in sports and performance psychology.

"Ask yourself what you already love, and then choose an exercise type that fits that love," says Perlus. Then, proceed to reap all the mental health benefits of your workout of choice.

Updated by Genesis Rivas
Was this page helpful?
Related Articles