The health benefits of physical exercise are well understood and it is undisputed that exercise prevents and improves a number of health 2 part brain green blue with a dumbbell insideconditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease1. However, more recent research shows that the positive effects of exercise are not limited to your physical health. Have you ever wondered why you feel better after your morning walk or trip to the gym? Or what exactly your friend means when they talk about their “runner’s high”? Exercise has been proven to have profound positive effects on mental health and overall wellbeing.

Cartoon woman in sweats lifting dumbbells overhead

Recent research conducted by the Center for Addictions and Mental Health (CAMH) has found that 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental illness in any given year2. Many individuals with serious mental illnesses are also at a heightened risk for other chronic diseases related to physical inactivity4. Given the relationship between physical exercise and mental health, it is prudent to consider how physical activity can be used to reduce psychological distress. Unfortunately, research evidence suggests that exercise is often a neglected intervention in mental healthcare. Lifestyle modifications, like incorporating 30 minutes of exercise into your day, could be a cost-effective way to improve physical and mental health, and overall quality of life. Indeed, studies have shown that 30 minutes of exercise 3-5 times per week has significant psychological benefits including improved self-confidence, reduction of anxiety and depression, and overall improved mood3,4. Studies have also found that exercise can be as effective in treating moderate depression as antidepressant medications, and can also help to prevent relapse5.

Endorphins and Feel Good Chemicals!

Neurons firing in a electrical brain

It is easy to see why exercise is good for our physical health; the benefits of exercise on mental health however are less apparent but there is a clear mechanism of action. The human brain has been equipped with an all-natural system to relieve pain and enhance pleasure and joy. This system is made possible through the release of endorphins and other feel good chemicals! Endorphins are hormones that, when activated, are able to reduce pain, stress, depression, and anxiety, while also improving your immune system, self-esteem, and overall happiness6. High endorphin levels help to boost our other feel-good hormones like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. Dopamine is a hormone responsible for increasing feelings of pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation7. Oxytocin, also known as the love hormone, is a powerful chemical that plays a role in social interactions and reduction of anxiety7, 8. Finally, serotonin plays a vital role in regulating our mood and feelings of happiness7. Overall, having properly regulated levels of all of these feel-good chemicals are extremely beneficial to our mental health and can help to prevent or reduce the effects of psychological disorders.

Cartoon woman using a hula hoop

As it turns out, physical activity is one of the best ways to increase and maintain our brain’s production of these feel-good hormones3. In fact, the release of these hormones after vigorous exercise can be comparable to the effects of taking opioid drugs—both causing an intense release of dopamine6,11. This euphoric and relaxing state after high-intensity exercise is where the term “runner’s high” originated. Aside from running, any form of aerobic activity, such as a brisk walk, a bike ride, or match of tennis, can contribute to the same effect. The effects of these happy hormones can be felt immediately after exercise. However, regular physical activity over time can work to remodel our brain’s reward systems, allowing for higher circulating levels of dopamine at all times. This effect has been shown to reduce depressive symptoms and increase joy10.


Anxiety and depression are disorders characterized by patterns of negative thoughts and rumination. While attending therapy is the most effective way to change these thought patters, regular exercise may also help ease depression and anxiety symptoms. Exercise is an effective way to take your mind off your worries in a productive manner and interrupt the cycle of negative thoughts. Taking even 30 minutes away from your busy schedule to exercise may allow you to find some quiet personal time to break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression and anxiety.

Cartoon Woman skipping rope Additionally, some forms of exercise incorporate techniques such as mindfulness and positive affirmations. Yoga and Pilates are two mindful practices that can help you to remain focused on the present moment, effectively taking your mind off of all the stressors going on in the background. Both practices focus on techniques to reduce stress and anxiety, such as breathing techniques, setting intentions, and improving self-care.

Self-esteem and Confidence

The American Psychological Association defines self-esteem as the degree to which one’s qualities and characteristics are perceived to be positive13. One’s self-esteem reflects how they feel about things like their physical self-image, accomplishments, and capabilities13.Cartoon woman in a yellow sweater hugging herself

While low self-esteem is not classed as a mental disorder, many links have been drawn between low self-esteem and our overall wellbeing12. In fact, low self-esteem can impact our mood, how we interact with others, and our outlook on the world12. Low self-esteem is tightly correlated with negative self-talk, which is a characteristic thinking pattern in many diagnosable disorders like depression and anxiety13.

Having healthy levels of self-esteem is integral to your wellbeing; finding ways to increase your self-esteem can improve your mental health and lead to much more positive self-regard13. Exercise has been proven to alleviate low self-esteem and social withdrawl11. With regular exercise, you will begin to feel stronger, more powerful, and more in control of your body. These experiences are incredibly rewarding and contribute to improved self-esteem and sense of achievement.

Incorporating Exercise into Your Life 

Between finding time in busy schedules and navigating crowded public gyms, it can be daunting to know where to begin. If you are feeling unmotivated, there are plenty of quick, easy, and low-cost ways to incorporate some movement into your day.2 cartoon women doing lunges with dumbells

It’s okay to start small! Jumping right into a challenging workout plan or committing to a 5-kilometer run can be intimidating as a beginner. Instead, begin with a brisk walk, or bodyweight exercises before adding heavy weights. As your confidence and stamina increases over time, you will be able to challenge yourself further.

Utilize online tools! A quick search on YouTube can bring about thousands of free, beginner friendly videos that can be followed from the comfort of your living room. From 15-minute core burnouts, to yoga, to a full body workout, there will be something for everyone! There is also no shortage of free apps that offer beginner friendly workout plans.

Increase your accountability by joining workout classes at your local gym or community center. Group classes are often filled with words of encouragement which will help to increase your energy and motivation. Classes led by a trainer also take the brainpower out of working out—no planning required! Bringing a workout buddy to the gym can also help to increase accountability and motivation.

Most important, find a type of exercise that works for you. Try out a variety of activities until you find the one that feels good both mentally and physically—exercise should be fun! If running is not for you, try something else like cycling, Pilates, swimming, or agility with your dog! The easiest exercise program to stick to will be one that you don’t dread! Finding an exercise routine that you genuinely enjoy will prevent it from feeling like a chore and increase your enthusiasm to keep it up over time!

Author: Emma Weber, BSc. and Dubravka Gavric, Ph.D., C.Psych



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