By: Coach Elie

Hey everyone, Coach Elie here. As we are approaching the tail end of mental health awareness month, I thought it would be timely to discuss the effects of fitness on our mental health.

The mind is a powerful thing. It can shape our lives and affect our physical health, future, and relationships. What's crazy is the mind can be a fragile thing as well, which is why so many of us suffer from depression, anxiety, OCD, ADHD, and the list goes on. Considering the fact that we are still in a pandemic that has taken such a toll on people's mental well-being, even mental health professionals who are equipped to help us are suffering from burnout.

A recent statistic from the American Psychological Association stated that in 2021, 84% of psychologists had a significant increase in patients suffering from anxiety alone. Additionally, 46% of psychologists were experiencing burnout from this tremendous rise in demand for mental health services. Professional mental health treatment is scarce, so how can we use exercise to help battle this problem?

First of all, what benefits come with exercising?

A study by Sharma et. al shows 9 benefits from regular exercise:

  • Improved sleep
  • Increased interest in sex
  • Better endurance
  • Stress relief
  • Improvement in mood
  • Increased energy and stamina
  • Reduced tiredness and increased mental alertness
  • Weight reduction
  • Reduced cholesterol and improved cardiovascular fitness

There is also recent evidence suggesting that the mental benefits of exercise exceed just these. Another study listed in a psychiatric services journal demonstrated how physical fitness had similar effects to psychotherapy in battling depression, anxiety, phobias, panic attacks, and stress disorders (Richardson et al., 2005). Improvement in the symptoms of both anxiety and depression came immediately following an exercise session. Improvements lasted between a few hours and a day, just for one session of exercise.

How does exercise accomplish all this?

Although the research is incomplete in answering how exercise improves mental health, patterns arise in certain studies that lead us to a few hypotheses. Interestingly, most of the benefits listed above seem to be physical benefits; however, they stem from the mental benefits of exercise for the most part. For example, exercise improves sleep. How? An article in a sports psychiatry journal shows that exercise releases feel-good chemicals, examples being dopamine and serotonin, that reduce stress and anxiety, helping you fall asleep faster. However, it may not be that simple.

A study by Hackney shows exercise, a stressor, will initially increase the effects of the neuroendocrine system, releasing cortisol. However, when the exercise is complete, the hormone levels contributing to stress are significantly lower, reducing stress levels. By including exercise in your regimen daily, you are allowing yourself to practice dealing with stressors. Consequently, the more you practice, the more efficient you become in dealing with stress. The sense of accomplishment and confidence that comes with exercise can also improve our mental health.

How much exercise is required?

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, a minimum of 20-60 minutes of medium intensity exercise at least 3 times a week is recommended to reap the mental benefits of exercise. The type of exercise required is generally tailored to the person and not a one size fits all. A reasonably athletic person will likely not reap benefits by simply going on a light 20-minute walk 3 times a week. In contrast, one who is older has a high risk of physical health issues, and has a relatively low fitness level will likely benefit from walking that same amount. One's goals, health status, gender, and many other factors decide what kind of exercise is required. That's where the art of working with a personal trainer who analyzes these factors to create a program perfectly suited for you comes into play.

Why doesn't everyone exercise if there are this many benefits?

The list of reasons why a person chooses not to engage in physical activity may be long, but it comes down to what we want at the end of the day. If you want something enough, you will work for it, no matter what it takes. That goes for anything in life. I challenge you to read up more on the benefits of exercise, both physical and mental, and ask yourself how badly you want to see those benefits in your own life? Make a list! Write down what's holding you back, and overcome those barriers. Start small, and you will gradually begin feeling more energetic, less stressed, happier, more relaxed, confident, and ultimately… mentally healthy.

P.S. If you're looking for a qualified coach to help you get started, click here (please add a link to our contact page) to book your own complimentary consult!


54. Allen M. The psychobiology of athletic training. In: Begel D, Burton RW, editors. Sport psychiatry: theory and practice. New York: W. W. Norton & Company; 2000. p. 22-44.

Hackney, A. C. (2006). Stress and the neuroendocrine system: The role of exercise as a stressor and modifier of stress. Expert Review of Endocrinology & Metabolism, 1(6), 783–792.

Peluso, M. A., & Andrade, L. H. (2005). Physical activity and mental health: The association between exercise and mood. Clinics, 60(1), 61–70.

Richardson, C. R., Faulkner, G., McDevitt, J., Skrinar, G. S., Hutchinson, D. S., & Piette, J. D. (2005). Integrating physical activity into mental health services for persons with serious mental illness. Psychiatric Services, 56(3), 324–331.

Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for Mental Health. National Library of Medicine.

The recommended quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness, and flexibility in healthy adults: American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 30:975–991