The latest scientific research points to moderate levels of exercise being a ‘miracle drug’, not just for physical health but for mental health, too. Interestingly, studies monitoring people over time show that those with lower levels of fitness experience higher levels of depression and anxiety.


Recently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) updated its global physical activity guidelines. In brief, any form of movement is better than nothing – logically, the most sedentary among us have the most to gain. These guidelines recommend that all adults should be aiming to do 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic exercise every week, or an equivalent combination of the two.

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The health benefits of exercise include:

  1. Boosting your self-esteem
  2. Helping manage stress
  3. Improving emotional regulation
  4. Supporting restful sleep
  5. Improving cognition
  6. May help ease depression
  7. May ease anxiety
  8. Enhancing brain connections
  9. May improve alertness and focus
  10. Sharpening memory
  11. Is mentally energising

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11 ways that exercise benefits your mental health

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1. Boosts your self-esteem

Physical activity can boost self-esteem and body image, especially if you're acquiring new personal skills (‘self-mastery’). Studies in all ages suggest exercise supports a sense of self competence and self-concept.

2. Helps manage stress

Exercise is a great distraction technique after a day of back-to-back virtual meetings or other stress-triggering events.

Within the last decade, there has been greater societal awareness of ‘mindfulness’, encouraging our full presence within the moment, which in turn enables us to make detached observations about our environment. These mindful movement techniques can be cultivated through exercise including yoga and walking, and may help reduce stress and help you manage difficult situations in a more considered way.

3. Improves emotional regulation

Recent research found aerobic exercise improves the three stages of emotion regulation (perception, valuation and action). It appears that exercise helps encourage us to re-interpret emotional situations in a more positive way and helps us control our expression of these emotions.

4. Supports restful sleep

Professional sports people understand how poor sleep impacts performance and recovery, but it also has an impact on your mental health. Luckily, exercise can help you sleep better, too. Studies show how different forms of exercise may improve sleep efficiency (the percentage of time spent asleep while in bed) – just make sure you avoid intense exercise too close to bedtime.

5. Improves cognition

Exercise may improve your working memory and ‘higher-order’ (executive) cognitive functions – this may reduce the chance of developing dementia. Obviously, we can’t change our genetic risks, but there’s still much we can do to prevent this neurodegenerative illness.

More scientific information on modifiable lifestyle risk factors, like exercise, are available through Prof Gill Livingston's 2017 study.

6. May help ease depression

Exercise is potentially an anti-depressant, regardless of depression intensity. It's been shown to work well for older adults who participate in group exercises, which reinforces the benefits of socialising as we age. It is not just aerobic activity, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that strength training is just as effective.

Unfortunately, depression may directly impact motivation and energy levels, so exercise may not be a go-to strategy for some of those with depression. Also, non-regular exercisers and those with physical health conditions should seek medical clearance to ensure it is safe for them to participate in increased activity, including structured exercise.

A man cycling in a forest

7. May ease anxiety

Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise appears to be a useful ancillary treatment for anxiety disorders, although not as effective as anti-depressant treatment.

8. Enhances brain connections

The role of exercise on brain mechanics and mental illness remains an enigma, although researchers have identified some of the key mechanisms. For example, exercise enhances key brain connections, signalling pathways and blood flow patterns. Also, it may reduce inflammation and rejuvenate brain cells (neurogenesis) and hormones.

9. May improve alertness and focus

Increased activity levels improve blood flow, including that to the brain, this promotes cell growth and energises brain cells. This means just 20 minutes after exercise you may enjoy better concentration and focus.

10. Sharpens memory

Studies suggest that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory (prefrontal cortex and mental temporal cortex) have a greater volume in people who exercise versus people who don’t. In fact, the beneficial effects of exercise on memory can last up to two hours after an exercise session.

11. Mentally energising

Low-intensity exercise appears to be energising, this supports the brain potentially resulting in more creativity and better academic performance.

Everything in moderation

In rare circumstances, exercise may slowly transform from a healthy, recreational hobby to that of a compulsive, behavioural addiction. Those affected may express severe guilt when not exercising and forgo food or social events to train. Exercise addiction tends to be particularly problematic in those experiencing eating disorders, making their illness harder to treat.

You can learn more about this issue through BEAT charity resources and you can access help through their local GP service.

Last words

Exercise as a key lifestyle factor plays an important role in optimising our physical and mental health but it should be tailored to the individual in order to optimise benefits. Public health messaging on this topic needs to be balanced to ensure that exercise is safe, accessible and appealing to us all.

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This article was last reviewed on 24 April 2024 by Kerry Torrens.

Dr Amit D Mistry is a consultant sports psychiatrist, author and mental health advisor to Oxford University Sport. He is a frontline NHS clinician working in eating disorders. You can follow him on @DrAMistryPsych.


All health content on is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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