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Mental Health Effects of Exercise

By: Cristian Renzi

At the time this is being written, countries around the world are currently under lockdown/quarantine due to COVID-19. Something that I have noticed on my occasional drives to the grocery store, or whenever else I have an excuse to leave my house, is that there are an increased number of people engaging in exercise. Not only do I see people jogging, or going on walks with their family, many people on Instagram have taken to posting their makeshift home-gyms, or their workout routines consisting of bodyweight exercises like push-ups, crunches and squats, etc. Maybe people are just taking their health more seriously, maybe people are just bored and have nothing else to do, or maybe I am just noticing it more because I have also been exercising much more than normal. Either way, there seems to be a lot of exercising going on.

As is probably little surprise to anyone, working out is really good for you! Getting your body moving and your blood pumping is never a bad thing, but aside from the physical benefits of working out, how does working out make you feel mentally? Portugal and colleagues (2013) state that while exercise is not only good for mental health, it is also extremely beneficial for brain health as well. The study found that exercise increased the amount of neurogenesis (new brain cells being born), and neuroplasticity (new paths between brain cells being developed) within the brain. Exercise is extremely beneficial for the brain, but can also help to lessen symptoms of depression and anxiety (Anderson & Shivakumar, 2013; Morgan et al, 2013).

Not only can exercise lessen symptoms of anxiety and depression, but Firth and colleagues (2015), also found that exercise helped to lessen symptoms of schizophrenia. Mikkelsen et al. (2017), states that exercise not only helps us with decreasing feelings of anxiety, depression and stress, it also helps us in two other important ways; increasing our self-efficacy, and distraction. Self-efficacy is an important psychological phenomenon that was developed by famous psychologist Albert Bandura in the late 1970’s. In his seminal work on the topic, Bandura (1977) states that psychological procedures alter the level of self-efficacy we possess. He goes on to mention that the level of self-efficacy we possess will determine how much effort we put forth when doing a task, if we will cope with difficult circumstances or crumble, etc..

This is extremely important, as exercise has a large mental/psychological component, from even before we begin exercising. Just getting to the gym, getting on your running shoes, or even just getting outside sometimes takes some sort of self-convincing, or self-push (a lot in my case). When it is complete, it makes us feel as though we have accomplished something, or if we try a new exercise it makes us feel as if we have learned something new. It makes us feel as though we have surpassed an obstacle, and that we can now accomplish anything our day throws at us.

Having something to challenge us and push us forward is always important, but having something like that during the coronavirus pandemic is sometimes difficult to find. People are out of work, and the world seems to be at a stand-still, but it doesn’t mean that exercise won’t help, even if it is only a little bit.

Mikkelsen and colleagues (2017) also posits that exercise helps by keeping us distracted. Anderson and Shivakumar (2013), elaborate and state that exercise is an excellent “time out” from our daily stressors, and is effective for combating anxiety.

This is something that I find extremely important and relevant. Not only is the world in a stressful state right now with coronavirus filling every headline, but even without COVID-19, the world is a stressful place. Deadlines are always around the corner, mortgages need to be paid, your spouse is angry at you, the kids need to be fed, and the car needs new brakes. These are all difficult things to think about when you are bench-pressing and every movement you make needs to be purposeful and thought through or you could risk injury. Put in simpler terms, when you are working out, you should be thinking about your workout.

This is a sometimes very needed hideaway/distraction from your daily stressors. When you are working out it can be seen as an almost physical meditation, a time when all your daily stressors seem to melt and fade away until the time when your workout is complete.

Rethorst (2019), has even suggested that exercise can be seen as a preventative measure for mental health disorders including depression.

Rethorst (2019), states that physical activity reductions over time has been found to be predictive of increased risk of depression. Rethorst (2019), also goes on to suggest that perhaps exercise should be used as a sole-treatment for depression. While there is research on the subject, this is something I disagree with, as I personally believe that talk-therapies are the best form of treatment for depression. However, if talk therapy is being conducted, and the person also begins exercising, I believe these things in conjunction could certainly be beneficial, and exercising certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Working out is definitely good for your physical health, and can help shed off those sometimes unwanted 10 pounds. Even if you don’t want to lose any weight at all, that’s great too, but exercising will certainly help your mental health. During the COVID-19 pandemic it certainly can be difficult to keep busy, but now is also the perfect time to start a new habit or hobby. Start small by just going for a walk, and eventually work into a slow jog, or lift weights if you have the ability to, even start very slow by doing something very low impact like deep breathing or yoga. If you form a habit now when you might have the extra time, you might like it enough to keep it when the world is back to normal. Good luck, and stay healthy out there!


Anderson, E. H., & Shivakumar, G. (2013). Effects of exercise and physical activity on anxiety. Frontiers in psychiatry, 4, 27.

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological review, 84(2), 191.

Firth, J., Cotter, J., Elliott, R., French, P., & Yung, A. R. (2015). A systematic review and meta-analysis of exercise interventions in schizophrenia patients. Psychological medicine, 45(7), 1343-1361.

Mikkelsen, K., Stojanovska, L., Polenakovic, M., Bosevski, M., & Apostolopoulos, V. (2017). Exercise and mental health. Maturitas, 106, 48-56.

Morgan, A. J., Parker, A. G., Alvarez-Jimenez, M., & Jorm, A. F. (2013). Exercise and mental health: an exercise and sports science Australia commissioned review. Journal of Exercise Physiology Online, 16(4).

Portugal, E. M. M., Cevada, T., Monteiro-Junior, R. S., Guimarães, T. T., da Cruz Rubini, E., Lattari, E., ... & Deslandes, A. C. (2013). Neuroscience of exercise: from neurobiology mechanisms to mental health. Neuropsychobiology, 68(1), 1-14.

Rethorst, C. D. (2019). Effects of exercise on depression and other mental disorders.

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