Exploring the Mind-Body Connection: Exercise and Mental Health

Posted Jun 3, 2024 under:

The Powerful Link Between Physical Activity and Mental Well-being

With over 1 in 5 U.S. adults impacted by mental illness, it’s important to explore the role of lifestyle factors in promoting mental health.

The Science Behind Exercise and Mental Well-Being

Regular exercise has been shown to have profound effects on mental health, from enhancing cognitive function to alleviating symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The relationship between exercise and mental health has long been a subject of fascination for researchers, healthcare professionals, and anyone looking to improve their quality of life. When more than 1 in 5 U.S. adults live with a mental illness, it’s become increasingly important to explore the role of lifestyle factors in improving mental health. One such factor is exercise, which has emerged as a promising approach to promoting mental well-being. Studies suggest that engaging in regular physical activity can help alleviate symptoms of common mental health disorders, improve mood, and lead to greater resilience.

Read below to examine the science linking physical activity to better mental health and discover some practical strategies for making exercise a regular, manageable part of your life.

Why Exercise Makes Us Feel Good (According to Science)

It’s no secret that exercise can leave us feeling invigorated, energized, and even euphoric. However, the reason behind these positive emotions is not just placebo – it’s deeply rooted in the psychological and physiological processes that occur in our bodies during physical activity.

The science behind the “runner’s high” primarily involves the three factors below:

1. Neurochemicals

Physical activity triggers a cascade of neurochemical changes in the brain. This happens primarily through the release of endorphins and endocannabinoids, often referred to as “feel-good” chemicals. These natural opioids interact with receptors in the brain, reducing pain perception and promoting feelings of pleasure and well-being.

Endorphins, often referred to as “feel-good” chemicals, are natural opioids that interact with receptors in the brain, reducing pain perception. However, endorphins do not pass the blood-brain barrier, making it unlikely that they contribute directly to a euphoric “runner’s high.”

According to John Hopkins Medicine, relaxed post-exercise feelings can be attributed to endocannabinoids, biochemical substances similar to cannabis but naturally produced by the body. Unlike endorphins, endocannabinoids can easily move through the cellular barrier separating the bloodstream from the brain, where they promote short-term psychoactive effects like reduced anxiety and feelings of calm.

Exercise also increases the levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Serotonin is known for its mood-regulating effects, helping to alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. Dopamine, often associated with the brain’s reward system, contributes to feelings of motivation, pleasure, and satisfaction. Norepinephrine, on the other hand, plays a role in attention, focus, and arousal.

The combined effect of these neurochemical changes typically leads to a calming effect on the brain, improved mood, and feelings of relaxation, happiness, or euphoria.

2. Natural Stress Reduction

Chronic stress is a pervasive issue with proven detrimental effects on physical and mental health. When we experience stress, our bodies release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. When constantly elevated, these hormones can lead to serious consequences, including anxiety, depression, heart disease, weight gain, and insomnia. During physical activity, stress hormone levels are reduced while endorphin and endocannabinoid levels are boosted, leading to an improved mood and a short-term reduction in stress levels.

3. Better Cognitive Function

The benefits of exercise extend beyond mood regulation and into the realm of cognitive function and brain health. Regular physical activity has been shown to stimulate neuroplasticity, which refers to the brain’s ability to form new neural connections and adapt to new experiences. Exercise promotes the growth of new brain cells (neurogenesis) in regions like the hippocampus, which is crucial for learning and memory. It also increases the production of proteins like brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which supports the survival and growth of neurons.

These neuroplastic changes have been linked to improved memory, learning, attention, and overall cognitive performance. Studies have shown that regular exercise is associated with better executive function, which includes skills like planning, decision-making, and problem-solving.

Furthermore, according to the Alzheimer’s Society, exercise has been associated with a reduced risk of age-related cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

The Role of Exercise in Mental Health Treatment

While traditional treatments like psychotherapy and medication are crucial for managing mental health conditions, a growing body of research shows that exercise may be a highly effective way to ease symptoms.

It’s important to note that exercise is not a replacement for evidence-based treatments prescribed by mental health professionals. However, when included in a treatment plan, regular exercise may enhance the effectiveness of therapy and medication and lead to better outcomes for some mental health conditions, such as:


Depression is a common mental health condition that affects millions of people worldwide. Mental health professionals characterize this disorder by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable.

Fortunately, numerous studies have demonstrated that exercise may help alleviate the symptoms of this condition. One meta-analysis in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that exercise interventions correlate with significant reductions in depressive symptoms, with effects comparable to those of antidepressant medications.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety, can also significantly impact an individual’s quality of life. Exercise provides a healthy outlet for pent-up energy and helps shift focus away from anxious thoughts.

Additionally, the physiological changes that result from exercise—such as reduced muscle tension, positive neurochemicals, and increased heart rate variability—have calming effects on the mind and body. Ultimately, regular physical activity helps regulate the body’s stress response, promotes relaxation, and increases feelings of resilience, making it an effective tool for managing and reducing anxiety symptoms.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can develop after exposure to traumatic events. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes exercise as a valuable complementary treatment for individuals with PTSD. Evidence suggests that engaging in physical activity may help reduce symptoms of this disorder, which include hyperarousal, intrusive thoughts, and avoidance behaviors. Exercise also provides a sense of control and mastery over one’s body, which can be empowering for people who have experienced trauma.

How to Make Exercise a Habit

Despite the well-established benefits of exercise for mental health, many struggle to make physical activity a regular part of their daily lives. According to the CDC, low motivation, lack of time, and feelings of self-doubt are the primary challenges to a consistent routine.

To overcome these barriers, try the following strategies:

1. Set S.M.A.R.T. Goals

  • Start with Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound (S.M.A.R.T.) fitness targets that align with your current fitness level and lifestyle.
  • Focus on progress rather than perfection to build confidence and avoid burnout.

2. Create or Join an Incentivized Group

  • Consider joining or creating a fitness group that offers incentives for participation and reaching milestones.
  • When we pay for a service or seek a reward at the end, we’re more likely to stick with an exercise routine.

3. Find Enjoyable Activities

  • Experiment with different types of physical activities to discover what you genuinely enjoy.
  • Prioritize the exercises that bring you happiness and satisfaction – you’re more likely to stick to them.

4. Create a Supportive Environment

  • Surround yourself with people who encourage and inspire you to prioritize your well-being.

5. Integrate Physical Activity into Your Daily Routine

  • Look for opportunities to incorporate movement into your existing schedule, such as taking the stairs or walking during lunch breaks.
  • Make exercise a natural part of your day to reduce the mental obstacle of carving out dedicated workout time.

6. Plan Ahead and be Flexible

  • Make physical activity a regular part of your schedule by planning ahead and prioritizing it.
  • Have alternative options available when unexpected challenges arise, such as inclement weather or time constraints.

What if I Have a Chronic Condition?

For individuals living with chronic conditions, exercise can play a vital role in symptom management and overall quality of life. Low-impact activities, such as swimming, cycling, or gentle yoga, can be particularly suitable for those with physical limitations or chronic pain.

If you’re dealing with a chronic condition, it’s important to work closely with your healthcare provider to develop an individualized exercise plan that considers specific needs and limitations.

A Note to Healthcare Providers

As professionals dedicated to helping others, it’s crucial not to neglect your own wellbeing. Doctors, nurses, and other medical staff face unique challenges that can take a toll on their physical and mental health. Long hours, high-stress situations, and emotionally demanding work can and do lead to burnout, anxiety, and depression.

According to a 2023 survey by the American Nurses Foundation, 56% of nurses are experiencing burnout, including emotional exhaustion, and 64% say they feel “a great deal of stress because of their job.” The survey also revealed that 2/3 of nurses who said they are suffering mental anguish or toxic emotions are either not seeking or not receiving mental health support. Furthermore, 56% say there are stigmas associated with healthcare providers receiving mental health care.

Similarly, the 2024 Medscape Physician Burnout and Depression Report found that 49% of physicians reported feeling burned out, and 20% said they were feeling depressed. Furthermore, the survey found that many physicians battling depression keep it to themselves, with 42% worried about their employer or medical boards learning about it and 44% fearing others would doubt their skills as physicians.

Prioritizing self-care, including regular exercise, can help healthcare providers maintain their own health and wellbeing and allow them to provide better care for their patients. By incorporating physical activity into their daily routines, clinicians can lead by example, demonstrating the importance of a healthy lifestyle to those they serve.

However, individual healthcare providers do not bear sole responsibility for addressing the mental health challenges inherent in this demanding field. Healthcare organizations also have a role to play in fostering a culture that values and supports the wellbeing of their staff. This can include providing resources for stress management, destigmatizing mental health conversations, encouraging work-life balance, and promoting initiatives that make it easier for employees to engage in physical activity.

What to Ask Your Doctor

While exercise is generally safe and beneficial for most people, it’s wise to speak with your doctor before starting any new or rigorous fitness regimen, particularly if you have a chronic health condition or have been inactive for an extended period. Some questions to ask your doctor include:

  • Is it safe for me to start an exercise program?
  • How much exercise do I need at my age?
  • What types of exercises are appropriate for me?
  • Are there any types of exercise I should avoid?
  • What precautions should I take when exercising with a chronic health condition?

Your healthcare provider should be able to help you determine the best types and amounts of physical activity for your individual needs and limitations.


The mind-body connection is a powerful one, and the link between exercise and mental health is a testament to this power. As we’ve explored, regular physical activity can have profound effects on our psychological well-being, from boosting mood and reducing stress to improving cognitive function and lessening symptoms of mental health conditions.

In a time when stigmas persist and mental health resources are often stretched thin, exercise is an accessible way to take an active role in our own mental health journey. We have the power to influence our well-being through the choices we make. When we prioritize our own mental health, we’re better equipped to support others, be productive at work, and engage meaningfully with the world around us.

If you are experiencing severe or distressing mental health symptoms, the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is available 24/7 by calling or texting 988 or chatting with a representative at 988lifeline.org. This is a free, confidential national service that can provide life-saving support during a crisis.


Science Direct: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0166432823005090; https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1568163719303058

Cleveland Clinic: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22513-neurotransmitters; https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/23040-endorphins; https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22610-norepinephrine-noradrenaline

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/learn/index.htm; https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adding-pa/barriers.html

American Psychological Association: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/12/exercise

Medical News Today: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326090; https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/is-exercise-more-effective-than-medication-for-depression-and-anxiety

Very Well Mind: https://www.verywellmind.com/chronic-stress-3145104

John Hopkins Medicine: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/the-truth-behind-runners-high-and-other-mental-benefits-of-running

Harvard Health: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/the-endocannabinoid-system-essential-and-mysterious-202108112569; https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/do-you-need-to-see-a-doctor-before-starting-your-exercise-program

Mayo Clinic: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037; https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/depression-and-exercise/art-20046495; https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/exercise-and-chronic-disease/art-20046049

National Library of Medicine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9654650/; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9916354/; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4915811/; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6075983/; https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26978184/; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5761738/; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10158556/; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5900369/; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10068501/

National Institute of Mental Health: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression

Frontiers in Psychology: https://www.frontiersin.org/journals/psychology/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.831819/full; https://www.frontiersin.org/journals/neuroscience/articles/10.3389/fnins.2018.00052/full

Alzheimer’s Society: https/www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-dementia/managing-the-risk-of-dementia/reduce-your-risk-of-dementia/physical-activity

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: https://www.research.va.gov/currents/0622-Exercise-may-be-useful-treatment-option-for-Veterans-with-PTSD.cfm

American Psychiatric Association: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/anxiety-disorders/what-are-anxiety-disorders

Pain Treatment Centers of America: https://www.ptcoa.com/top-10-low-impact-exercises-for-effective-pain-management

SCA Health: https://insights.sca.health/insight/article/trg-spotlight-stigma-free

Association of American Medical Colleges: https://www.aamcresearchinstitute.org/our-work/issue-brief/exploring-barriers-mental-health-care-us

American Nurses Foundation: https://www.nursingworld.org/news/news-releases/2023/the-american-nurses-foundation-says-action-is-still-needed-to-address-serious-nursing-workforce-challenges/

Chief Healthcare Executive: https://www.chiefhealthcareexecutive.com/view/nearly-half-of-doctors-report-burnout-but-there-is-some-progress-survey-finds

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