Benefits of Exercise and Mental Health

Recent research has shown a substantial amount of mental health benefits that are directly derived from exercise. These benefits range from the short term to long term, all of which positively influence the athlete’s mental health and wellbeing. Exercise has been shown to help improve memory, depression, focus, attention span, management of stress, mood, and protection against dementia. Read more below to see the benefits of exercise and mental health…

MRI Brain Scan

The human brain’s chemistry is very sensitive to a variety of internal and external factors such as diet, stress, and sleep. Exercise is able to positively influence multiple channels of wellbeing and mental health through its physiological effects on the human brain. The implementation of daily exercise has the potential to benefit everyone due to these unique benefits that exercise has upon the brain.

Depression and mood– Depression is one of the most common and debilitating mental afflictions. Approximately 9.5% of the United States adult population is affected each year, with over 17% of people experiencing a severe depressive episode at least one time in their lives. Depression is also one of the leading causes of disability and costs the United States over 40 billion a year in lost work and productivity. As scientists continue to research this condition, one form of alternative treatment that seems to provide significant long term improvement of depression symptoms is exercise. Exercise has been shown to be as effective as medical treatment in terms of reduction of symptions and remission rates, even after 16 weeks post study. The percentage of patients in remission from their depression at 16 weeks did not differ among groups (60.4% [exercise] vs. 68.8% [medication] vs. 65.5% [combination]. Furthermore a recent study at Duke University took a large sample group of clinically depressed patients and found that 60% of those who exercised were able to overcome their depression without antidepressant medication.

Focus, Attention span, and Memory- A tremendous number of adults suffer from trouble focusing and limited attention span. The basic treatment for this has been prescription stimulants which increase the brain’s dopamine levels in order to correct the problem. Exercise increases brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which naturally increases the neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain, which in turn helps to balance and  increase the brain’s cognitive abilities. Researchers at the University of Texas found that the more lactic acid produced during exercise (the burning you feel in your muscles) the more BDNF was released. Furthermore, the subjects were presented with the ‘Strooptest’ to assess their cognitive abilities. The specific purpose of this test is to measure how good your brain is at dealing with information, and the results showed that after exercise the subject’s brains performed significantly better in regards to the most difficult area of the test. Studies have also shown that after approximately just 30 minutes of exercise the brain is much more adept to focus and retain studied information.

Exercise also has been repeatedly shown to decrease the rate of aging in reference to memory and brain function as time goes on. Additionally, exercise has been shown to be neuroprotective in many neurodegenerative and neuromuscular diseases, such as reducing the risk of developing dementia. Furthermore, strong evidence suggests that regular exercise may reverse alcohol induced brain damage over time.

Sagittal Brain MRI

It is hypothesized that exercise works through a combination of methods in order to influence positive brain chemistry with respect to mental health and well-being:

  1. Positive outlook and achievement- The athlete’s own ability to overcome obstacles, improve their progress, and achieve goals improves their self esteem and overall personal assessment of themselves.
  2. Endorphins- Endorphins are a natural pain reliever and antidepressant released by the body at the response of certain stimuli. They are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus and are similar to natural opiates. The increased release of endorphins following exercise can provide feelings of euphoria and a sensation of accomplishment. This sensation is commonly known as the ‘runner’s high’. Endorphins are directly related to a positive mood and an overall enhanced sense of wellbeing.
  3. Monoamine- This is the increase in the availability of brain neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine). Studies have found that exercise boosts activity in the brain’s frontal lobes and the hippocampus as well as a significant increase of neurotransmitter chemicals. Lower levels and an imbalance of these chemicals has been found to be directly related to medical issues such as depression, problems concentrating and focusing, etc.
  4. Release of Stress- Exercise helps relieve stress by allowing the brain to mentally clear itself and reduce the symptoms of stress built up in the body.
  5. Further benefits from exercise on the brain include:
  • Increasing the blood and oxygen flow to the brain
  • Increasing multiple growth factors that help create new nerve cells and promote synaptic plasticity
  • Increasing chemicals in the brain that help cognition by stimulating the creation and release of, but not limited to: dopamine, glutamate, norepinephrine, and serotonin.
  • Increasing levels of nerve growth factors, which support the survival and growth of neuronal cells

The benefits of exercise exceed well beyond the common physical manifestations that are easily observed. The integration of frequent physical activity can not only improve your body but your brain, mental health, and overall well being.

-Papa Swole

(This is an original post copyright to, credited to the aforementioned author. Its reproduction is strictly prohibited. All rights reserved to the original authors of any quoted or embedded material)

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2 Responses

  1. Randy R says:

    Well said… I have notice the change in myself..

  2. Ed Mayhew says:

    Well said. My question is: Why are schools so blind to this important information on how more exercise would help our children academically by optimizing brain function? American children are falling behind the children in other countries in math and science. Wouldn’t increasing the number of PE classes or seeing to it that our students get some exercise before class help? Instead our schools are eliminating and lessening PE classes to have more academic class time and it isn’t working!
    Ed Mayhew, author of Smarter Stronger Children

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