How Exercise Boosts Your Mental Health


Are you reaping the mental health benefits of your workout?

The former Chief Medical Officer of the UK Liam Donaldson wrote, in 2009, that “if a medication with similar benefits to exercise existed, it would be regarded as a miracle drug or a wonder treatment”. Whilst many of us are aware of the benefits of exercise for our cardiovascular health, bone density and waistline, the many psychological benefits are less well-known.

However it’s clear that many of our members feel the benefits of exercise upon their mental health. I’ve been privileged enough to speak to members on the gym floor who often tell me that managing their mental health is at least part of the motivation for them exercising. 
“Exercise helps me deal with my emotional state when I’m stressed”
“When I’m exercising, I have to concentrate entirely on the movement at present. This gives me at least temporary relief from whatever stressors are going on in my life”
“I exercise because I love the rush of endorphins I feel after my workout”
“After completing a tough class, I feel a sense of accomplishment that I can take with me for the rest of my day”

Whilst exercise is no panacea and treatment for mental illness should be administered as per professional advice from a mental health practitioner, it’s clear that many of us derive some mental benefits from moving our bodies. So, let’s take a dive into what some of these benefits and the mechanisms behind them are.

Exercise and Depression
2020 national data highlighted that almost 1 in 2 Australian adults had experienced a mental illness in their lifetime! The most common of these illnesses was Major Depression. Whilst medication can work wonders for some, unfortunately it can be problematic for others given low adherence rates and significant side effects. This has paved the way for the ‘exercise as medicine’ movement in Depression, with clinical trials now highlighting the psychological and physical benefits for many participants. For example, a 2019 systematic review by Biddle et. al. found some support for a causal association for exercise on depression. Whilst the research base isn’t exactly sure what the mechanisms are supporting this relationship, hypotheses range from the psychosocial benefits of training in group classes and in team sports to the release of ‘feel good’ hormones in the brain such as endorphins.

Exercise and Cognitive Functioning
Exercise isn’t just a tool that is being researched to treat mental illness. An emerging body of evidence is supporting exercise as a way to maintain and increase cognitive functioning. Important functions of the brain such as executive functioning and memory. The same 2019 review by Biddle et. al. found an even stronger causal association of exercise on cognitive functioning. Whilst this is a highly relevant finding for when we reach older age and experience cognitive decline, the effects of neurodegeneration often occur at a much earlier age than when a medical diagnosis for a disorder is reached. As such, it can serve us well to get into the habit of exercise at a younger age so we can maintain this as we age and continue to reap the benefits throughout our lives. But this begs the question, what type of exercise is best for my mental health and cognitive functioning?

Exercise: what type, how long for, whereabouts?
Given the concept of ‘exercise as medicine’ is relatively novel, official guidelines as to what type of exercise, how long it should be done for and whereabouts (indoors vs. outdoors) it should be done, are sparse (at least in the context of gaining the most for your mental health). However, psychological research points to one key variable as extremely important for getting any long-term benefits out of exercise- enjoyment. As University of Southern Queensland professor and researcher Stuart Biddle puts it, it’s “horses for courses”. You may enjoy running amongst nature whilst your best friend swears by Bodypump classes. It’s important though to stick to what’s enjoyable so you’ll maintain exercise as a habit. It’s only by maintaining the habit that you’ll be able to reap the aforementioned benefits of exercise on your mental health.

So, we can be confident that our exercise can help us in more ways than just for our physical health. You may already be gleaning the wonderful psychological benefits exercise can have. However, if you’re finding you’re simply not enjoying your exercise, it may be time to try a new approach. Perhaps give some of ANU Sport’s wide range of classes a go, or join a team sport to meet some new like-minded people. I’ll be trying out some new exercise in the form of ANU Sport’s Yoga classes next month- I may even see you there!

This article was written by ANU Sport Personal Trainer Indi Dissanyake (he/him). Indi has two undergraduate psychology degrees and is currently undertaking a Master of Professional Psychology at ANU. Check out Indi's profile, and book in with him here

Please note the contents of this discussion are not to be substituted for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Seek the advice of your mental health professional or other qualified health provider if you are dealing with or struggling with mental health issues or mental illness