How Does Physical Activity Affect Mental Health?

On bad days, a blanket, hot chocolate, and a TV show might seem like the perfect antidote. Quite often it is; but there’s another, less popular solution that isn’t as well-loved: exercise.

Our mental and emotional health is a function of our brains, and our brains are physical organs – which means our mental health is influenced by our physiology. This means physical and mental health status are closely intertwined rather than separate; poor physical health can lower our mental health, and vice versa.

Therefore, exercise, best known as a means to improve physical health, also has wide-ranging mental health benefits. 


How does physical health affect mental health?


Poor physical health from a variety of illnesses may affect our mental health either by increasing our stress levels or in certain rare and serious cases, attacking the brain and changing our behavioural patterns.

For example, chronic illnesses like diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and fibromyalgia stress the body, leading to increased mental stress too, as patients deal with symptoms and try to care for themselves. 


Hormonal changes also tend to affect our mental health. An underactive thyroid is often misdiagnosed as depression because it can cause similar emotional symptoms. Mental health is also known to be affected by the hormonal fluctuations of the reproductive cycle – premenstrual syndrome (PMS), premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), perinatal depression and anxiety, and perimenopausal depression are all examples. 

Positive physical changes, on the other hand, release a hormone called dopamine, which is associated with motivation and reward. A person can access dopamine in a variety of ways, ranging from listening to good music to sleeping and eating well to – exercising regularly. 


How does exercise help improve mental health?


In that case, wouldn’t it be easier to just listen to good music and take a nap on a bad day? Yes – but they don’t carry all of the benefits that physical activity does. Exercise offers a lot more and is a major overlooked tool in our mental health toolkit. Here’s what to know.


  • Physical activity decreases stress and improves mood: Research shows that within 10-20 minutes of aerobic activity, like a brisk walk or a run, mood starts to improve.  Exercise is known to decrease stress hormones like cortisol, while releasing endorphins, a set of hormones that are linked to pleasure, calmness, and better overall well-being.


  • Completing an exercise routine is affirming: Physical activity may make us feel tired, but it also makes us feel successful, when we’ve completed the task – even when it’s just a 10-minute walk. This triggers the brain’s motivation and reward system, which is linked to dopamine, and we feel a sense of accomplishment that counters our negative emotions.
  • Even light exercise yields emotional benefits: Research documents dopamine benefits from daily yoga exercises, too, for people who prefer a more calming routine.
  • Exercising regularly is a long-term physical health investment: The benefits of taking walks on a bad day, or even daily, add up like coins in a piggy bank — they include improved muscle function, heart and lung function, gut health, and immune function. This prevents the mental health stress related to taking care of frequent, preventable illnesses.
  • It’s a long-term mental and cognitive health investment, too: Luckily, the effort to keep our physical bodies running healthily also keeps us mentally healthy. Research states that small bursts of exercise daily can protect, maintain, and even improve mental and cognitive health long term.
  • It’s a prescribed treatment for mental health disorders: Exercise is not a magic bullet that cures mental illnesses. However, research shows that it does work to alleviate some symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and helps prevent them from increasing in severity.
  • Exercise gives us time to reflect: Since exercise mostly comprises repetitive activities, it allows the mind to relax and think through tricky situations and problems we may have faced. This type of self-reflection is critical in building greater self-awareness, which supports better mental health.
  • Exercise can help us surprise ourselves: As we stick with exercise for our mental well-being, we might end up with a few muscles to flexs. We may also discover cool abilities like getting up from the floor without needing arm support, or walking for an hour without needing a long break.

How to start a mentally healthy physical activity routine?


Though exercise is useful, overthinking it and overdoing it can lead to negative physical and mental consequences. Here are some guidelines for fitting a physical activity routine into our busy lives in a way that benefits our mental and physical well-being. 

  • 30-60 minutes is enough: Starting out with smaller timeframes, like 10 minutes, is also okay as long as we gradually increase the amount of exercise time per day.
  • Do enjoyable physical activities: If you like an active sport, playing it is technically exercise. If you’re more spiritual, yoga or tai-chi might fit you better. If you prefer simple cardio, a walk, a run, or even a swim are great ideas. Don’t force yourself to do anything you dislike.
  • Take a day or two off: Exercising 4-5 days a week is more than enough to keep people healthy and happy. The body needs rest as much as it needs movement.
  • Try it with friends: You could either join a spin cycling class with friends or play a game of football together. If there are just a few of you, a casual game of badminton is equally enjoyable and counts as exercise.


  • Keep your goals small: You do not need to showcase feats of athleticism immediately. Meeting simple time- or step-oriented goals for a day are more than enough while starting out. As you grow stronger and enjoy exercise, you can upgrade these goals.

While exercise has multiple benefits, the motivation to exercise changes day by day. On some days, a walk might be all you need to improve your mood. On other days, a blanket and ice-cream is essential. A healthy balance between both will pay off well for mental and physical health in the long term.

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