7 Ways Exercise Changes Your Mental Health 

7 Ways Exercise Changes Your Mental Health
By Erin Phelan

By Erin Phelan

Fitness Industry Council of Canada

Imagine this: You get to the end of a really tough day and the last thing you want to do is exercise. A voice inside your head says Workout, The body is tired, and the mind is exhausted. 


Yet, the voice persists: 


Workout. You will feel better


You drag yourself to the gym and hop on a treadmill. You tell yourself you will do ten minutes of walking. Ten minutes later, you feel better so you increase your speed – now you are jogging. In the last five minutes you push just a little harder….because you now can.  You hop off the treadmill, and while you are there you might as well  do a few sets of weights, right?


After 30 minutes, your bad day has turned around. 


Physical activity is one of the most powerful ways we can improve our mood, mind and emotional-well-being. As we honor Mental Health Week, we can’t ignore the powerful role exercise can play in helping Canadians improve their mental health. 


A huge systemic review, the most comprehensive to date, from researchers at the University of Sydney Australia, published in the British Medical Journal found that physical activity improved symptoms of depression, anxiety and distress, and that higher intensity exercise was associated with even greater improvements. 


According to the World Health Organization, nearly a billion people worldwide live with a mental disorder, costing the global economy an estimated $2.5 trillion annually. A 2010 study from the Mental Health Commission of Canada showed that the real cost of mental health in Canada is more than $50 billion annually – and experts argue that this cost has risen significantly since the pandemic.  


In spite of overwhelming evidence, physical activity is still not widely seen as a first-choice treatment for mental health. Even the act of walking in the door of a gym – even for a five minute stretch session – can positively impact your mood.


Here are 7 practical, research-driven ways that exercise improves our mental health:

  1. Exercise releases positive chemicals to the brain

Every day our brain and our body are in a constant state of communication  – and how we move our body (or not) has a huge impact on this dialogue. Exercise releases endorphins, which result in “feel good” messages to the brain. This can reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and sadness. The best news? A regular exercise routine has also been shown to increase levels of serotonin and dopamine, which are neurotransmitters that help us regulate our mood. The feeling of satisfaction after finishing a workout – the “runner’s high” is a real – research has shown that a state of euphoria is from increased endocannabinoids circulating in our system. 


  1. Exercise improves sleep

Sleep deprivation and sleep disorders have a direct effect on mental health. According to a 2022 study published in the journal Sleep Medicine, one in three people suffered some form of sleep disorder during the pandemic. Poor or lacking sleep has been tied to negative emotions, increased stressed, as well as weight gain. We know that sleep is essential for brain function, and helps us regulate emotions and behavior and improve cognitive function, attention and memory. A major review of more than 34 studies found a symbiotic relationship between sleep and exercise – exercise improved sleep, and sleep improves exercise. In addition, other studies have shown that long-term exercise helps individuals who suffer from insomnia fall asleep faster, sleep longer and have better quality sleep than they did before exercising.


  1. Exercise improves cognitive function

Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, and stimulates the creation and growth of new brain cells. Exercise also helps improve the connections between existing brain cells. One study found that cognitive decline was almost twice as likely among adults who were inactive compared to those who were physically active. Exercise helps improve memory, concentration, decision-making and is directly tied to improved emotional balance and well-being.


  1. Exercise improves self-esteem and self-confidence

You finish a workout and it is an immediate tick in the box. But there is more to it than that – a 2016 research review found that physical activity was directly and indirectly linked to improved self-esteem and body image – and that exercise should be promoted, particularly among youth and adults with low self-esteem. Interesting, body mass index had nothing to do with increased and improved self-esteem: we all gain confidence and self-worth from exercise!


  1. Exercise gives us a sense of purpose and belonging

When we set and achieve goals, we improve our mental health – this is linked to the reward part of our brain that provides us with motivation and discipline. But exercise also increases our social interactions, reduces feelings of isolation and helps us build connections – come to any group fitness class in the gym and see the power of social bonds. A small study from 2017 found that group exercise participants showed significant improvement in three quality of life measures – mental health, physical health and emotional health. They also reported at 26.2 percent reduction in perceived stress levels.  


  1. Exercise reduces symptoms of anxiety

In the ground-breaking book Move the Body, Heal the Mind McMaster University’s Dr. Jennifer Heisz explores all the ways exercise can improve our mental health – from anxiety, to stress to depression. For those who suffer from anxiety, exercise provides an essential calming effect in the brain, and here is how: At the end of each workout, there is a brief reprieve from anxiety due to neuropeptide Y, which increases with exercise. It helps sooth the anxious part of our brain that puts us into fight or flight mode. Exercise helps us reduce our fear. 


  1. Exercise alleviates symptoms of depression

Numerous studies have shown that regular exercise can be used as an effective dose for depression – in fact, the most recent large, systemic research review from the University of Sydney found that exercise can be 1.5 times more effective than medication. In large-scale studies active men and women become depressed at lower rates than sedentary people – even if they exercise for only a few minutes a day, or a few days a week. Exercise boosts serotonin levels in the brain – low serotonin levels are often found in people with depression. In Move the Body, Heal the Mind, Dr. Heisz explores the role that inflammation plays in the brain, saying that people who haven’t responded to anti-depressants who begin exercising see a significant reduction in symptoms of depression.


The best news? 


You don’t have to run marathons to reap the benefits of physical activity on your mental health. But you have to start. As we honor Mental Health Week in Canada, let’s everyone get moving – get outside, go for a power walk, head to the gym, find a group fitness class, find accountability partners and watch your mental health improve..

Erin Phelan is Communications Director of FIC and owns her own virtual fitness and health coaching business The Healthy Six.


Fitness Industry Council of Canada (FIC) is the not-for profit trade association that represents the voice of fitness facility operators across Canada. Representing more than 6,000 facilities with more than six-million members nationwide, FIC pursues a legislative agenda in the hope of bettering the fitness industry for both consumers and operators. FIC aims to work with both industry and government to improve the health and physical activity levels of Canadians.

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