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  • Laren Rusin

The mental benefits of exercise

With many people thinking about new year’s resolutions, weight control, or maybe starting to train for an event, this is definitely a time of year where people’s exercise habits tend to change (or, you go and hibernate all winter and stop exercising 😊 ). I wanted to offer some motivation for consistent exercise throughout the year-not for an activity goal, or for weight loss or muscle bulk, but for mental health. Especially during the holidays, which can be stressful, it’s good to know that we all have a tool at our disposal to help ourselves feel better.

This is a big big topic, and I’m just going to lightly touch on some reasons that exercise helps with mental health, but there’s a lot more to this (that I don’t have the room to write about! But will be happy to talk about with anyone who wants to!).

Several studies show that exercise decreases depressive symptoms. Exercise boosts levels of two neurotransmitters in the brain-GABA and glutamate, which are both depleted in depression.

There’s a correlation between glutamate levels being higher for a week after exercise versus those who did not exercise, but those benefits decrease over time removed from exercise-so you still get benefits even a day or so after you’ve exercised.

Endorphins (those chemicals that are related to feeling good and a positive mood) may also play a role in the feel-good effects of exercise, as blood levels are increased with both short term and long-term exercise.

Exercise also upregulates the endocannabinoid system, which may have more to do with the happy feeling one gets after exercise, than the endorphin release. This is still controversial.

Monoamine neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine can regulate neuron health, plasticity, and mood.

As well, exercise promotes new neurons in the brain, especially in the hippocampus (an area associated with memory). Exercise leads to the production of BDNF-Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, a protein that promotes growth and protection of neurons in the brain.

Exercise also benefits other areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex. This area is associated with higher-level function such as decision making, planning, and multitasking. Here’s the thing, though: we tend to get more mental benefit from exercise when we’re cognitively challenged. So running on a trail, navigating the path, and watching for deer, is going to give more benefit then plugging and chugging on the treadmill.

How much should I exercise? Mild to moderate exercise has more beneficial effects than very strenuous exercise, which may cause too much of a stress response. Intensity of exercise may matter as well, with more intense exercise offering higher production of neurotransmitters, to a point. If you're a couch potato, start with a 15-minute walk around the neighborhood. Something is always better than nothing!

So in addition to making you stronger, more functional, and giving your more energy, exercise is definitely supportive of mood, whatever the mechanism may be. If you’re unsure of how to start or change up an exercise program, check with a professional to help you design something that will meet your needs, and be sustainable. Happy new year!

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