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Dr Ian Nnatu

Page medically reviewed by Dr Ian Nnatu (MB BS, PG DIP (CBT), MSc, FRCPsych, MRCPsych) Consultant Adult Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital North London

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Benefits of exercise on mental health  |  Best exercises for mental health  |  How much exercise should I do?  |  Exercise and mental health conditions

It’s well-established that exercise is great for our physical health. But did you know it can also help boost a wide range of aspects of our mental health – from sleep to self-esteem?

In this piece, we outline the benefits exercise has on our mental health, make some suggestions for activities and exercises you could try, and explain how exercise can be used to treat diagnosed mental health conditions.

How does exercise help mental health? The benefits

Exercise is great for developing your physique, losing weight and improving the overall health of things like your lungs, brain and heart. But even as little as a 30-minute walk can bring a raft of other benefits to your mental health, many of which you might not have considered before.

common treatments for depression

Release feel-good hormones

Sometimes it can be hard to motivate yourself to exercise, but once you’re out there, you never regret it. That’s because, after a run or workout session, your body releases positive, feel-good chemicals like:

  • endorphins (a natural mood boost)
  • endocannabinoids (great for improving sleep and reducing anxiety)
  • dopamine (important for attention, memory, and motivation)

Get better sleep

Those who exercise more sleep better at night. Many of the benefits of exercising for your mental health are at play here. An improved mood and reduction in anxiety and stress mean you’re more likely to slip off soundly at night instead of lying awake.

Even short bursts of exercise will help to improve your sleep patterns; just be sure to get the timing right. Strenuous exercises like running or working out are great during the day but can leave you feeling energetic and unable to sleep if done too late at night. Later in the day, stick to things like yoga or a gentle walk to help relax you before bed.

Better your concentration and focus

The hormones produced during exercise can also improve your ability to concentrate and focus. Exercising releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that acts like a messenger between your brain and the rest of your body. Among other things, it’ll give your ability to focus and concentrate a handy boost.

Improve confidence and self-esteem

Self-esteem is a key indicator of how strong someone’s wellbeing is. Exercise can help us to feel better about ourselves by achieving goals. Knowing that, despite how hard exercise can sometimes be, you’ve pushed yourself to do it, is a feeling that benefits your self-esteem. Set yourself some realistic goals and reap the rewards when you hit them.

Reduce stress and anxiety

Exercise helps to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety in a number of ways. It helps to control the level of stress hormones in our body, like cortisol and adrenaline, relieving tension and acting as a means of release for things building up inside us.

Exercise is also a welcome distraction, helping us to zone out from things in our lives that are causing us to feel stressed or anxious. 

Make new friends

Certain activities lend themselves well to meeting new people. Sports teams and local groups like walking or running clubs are a great way to meet new people. Socialising with friends is one of the best kinds of self-care, helping us establish strong, healthy social connections. 

Boost memory and thinking skills

The physiological impact of exercise means it can also benefit your brain’s memory and thinking skills. According to Harvard Health, the parts of the brain that are responsible for thinking and memory are larger in people who exercise regularly.

That means that exercise can also be used to protect against cognitive decline as you get older. In fact, the British Journal of Sports Medicine says that it works as a protective factor against dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Be in happier moods

All of the above combine together to just generally make us happier. Exercise could be the key to you being more focused, less stressed, sleeping better, feeling more confident and having a more fulfilling social life.

Best exercises for mental health

If you’re struggling to decide on an activity or type of exercise, then here are a few suggestions, each of which comes with the benefits outlined above.

Walking and running for mental health

If you haven’t been doing any exercise recently, walking is a great way to get active and slowly build yourself up. It comes with all the mental health benefits described above, while not being too strenuous.

Walking comes with a unique benefit too. The link between nature and mental health is becoming ever more established. Walking allows you to get out to your local park, lake or nature reserve and take in the surroundings – boosting your mental health in the process.

Once you’ve built yourself up a bit, you might try running, an activity that maximises some of those physical and mental benefits to your health.

The gym and mental health

For those who want to push themselves a little harder, joining a gym is a good place to start. Gyms can be great for providing increased motivation to exercise. Once you’ve signed up, you’ll have access to a plethora of different classes. Take advantage and book yourself onto some, setting yourself a future goal in attending and completing that class. These small motivational nudges are what we all sometimes need to get active.

Yoga and mental health

While yoga is a little less strenuous than most activities, it comes with other psychological benefits. Depending on the type of yoga you engage in, it might involve things like breathing exercises, meditation and other ways in which you can relax.

These types of relaxation techniques are great for reducing anxiety, feeling more present, and controlling our emotions.

Sport and mental health

Whether it’s five-a-side football or crown green bowling, many sports have a distinct advantage – they have a social element. Team sports are intrinsically social in nature. They’ll involve regular sessions with likeminded people, where you engage in teamwork to achieve a common goal.

If you’re wondering where to start when it comes to finding a club near you, head to BBC Sport’s comprehensive list of club finders for pretty much any sport played in the UK.

How much physical activity should I do to improve my mental health?

When it comes to how often and for how long you should exercise, there really is no absolute answer. Just getting off the sofa and on your feet is the most crucial step to improving your mental health through exercise. Ultimately, doing something is better than doing nothing. Even with a leisurely 10-minute stroll, especially if this is done outside in the fresh air, you’ll start to see some of the benefits.

If you can, try and engage in 30 minutes of exercise at least 3 times a week. The Mental Health Foundation suggests that 30 to 35 minutes of low-intensity aerobic exercise, 3 to 5 days a week for 10 to 12 weeks is effective at increasing positive moods.

What mental health conditions can exercise help?

The power of exercise is highlighted when you consider how it can also help those with diagnosed mental health conditions. From depression to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), here’s how exercise should be a central aspect of anyone’s recovery from struggles with mental health.

Exercise for depression

The evidence that exercise helps when treating those with depression is developing all the time. Just one example, published in the Current Sports Medicine Reports journal, said that physical activity can “confer protection from the development of depression in children, adults, and older adults.” It also emphasised the importance of social support and/or supervision of exercise professionals to increase the chance of success. 

Exercise is great at reducing the symptoms of depression. It can improve your mood and reduce any feelings of hopelessness or sadness. It might also stop you from using things like alcohol in order to make you feel better.

Exercise for anxiety and stress

For those with anxiety disorders, or those under high levels of stress, exercise works to your benefit in a similar way to that of depression. Studies of people with anxiety disorders, like this one in the Depression and Anxiety journal, have found that those with higher rates of physical activity were better protected against symptoms of anxiety.

Exercise reduces muscle tension and tightness in our bodies, which can be key symptoms of anxiety. It also acts as a release for built-up emotions, and allows us a welcome distraction from problems at work or home that have built up inside of us.  

Exercise for ADHD

ADHD is characterised by being restless and unable to focus on things for long periods. The neurotransmitter, dopamine, which is responsible for our cycles of motivation, reward and pleasure, is thought to be lower in people with ADHD.

Many medications look to increase levels of dopamine in order to reduce the symptoms of ADHD, but a natural way of doing so is through exercise. Therefore, exercise may help people diagnosed with ADHD to improve their focus and ability to concentrate.

It’s also thought that exercise improves our executive function (a group of skills controlled by the frontal lobe in our brains). These skills include paying attention, organising, planning, and multitasking – all things which many people with ADHD struggle with. A study in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal found a link between the amount students exercised and their levels of executive function.

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