The connections between exercise and mental well-being

The brain is like a muscle – it needs exercising.

The importance of exercise in maintaining and improving physical and mental health has become increasingly recognised with new research. Exercise is known to prevent and treat high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, some cancers, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, obesity as well as to improve balance, strength, suppleness and mobility. Exercise also gives you more energy and makes you more likely to be able to keep mobile and independent in later life. It has now been shown that exercise also benefits mental health by:

•         reducing depression
•         reducing anxiety
•         reducing stress
•         improving concentration
•         improving sleep
•         reducing cravings for alcohol and nicotine during withdrawal
•         increasing the sense of well being
•         emerging evidence that it reduces memory problems and dementia

Photo of seahorse - hippocampus

How does exercise help the brain?

Exercise produces a dramatic change in neurochemical levels (see footnote). It may also induce neuroplasticity that is structural change to the brain.

One such study showed the ability of an area of the brain known as the hippocampus to undergo change. The hippocampus is involved in memory and emotional processing. Damage to the hippocampus can lead to loss of memory and difficulty in establishing new memories, such as occurs in Alzheimer’s disease. The hippocampus of the brain has a coiled structure, which resembles the elegant tail of a seahorse (Latin name hippocampus).

In one experiment, volunteers took part in aerobic exercise (cycling) for 30 minutes three times a week for three months. The results were compared with another set that played table football, in the same routine. MRI scans before and after the exercise programme showed significant changes in the size of the hippocampus. The volume of the hippocampus increased by 16% and this correlated to memory test improvements as well.

The connections between exercise and mental health photo

What kind of exercise?

  • Choose an exercise you would enjoy or learn a new skill to help keep your brain growing. The more there is to learn the more potential growth and benefit there will be.
  • Exercising with others increases motivation as it promotes a sense of belonging and commitment.
  • Plan and set realistic goals that are easily achievable. Make a fallback plan in case you cannot achieve your original plan.
  • One study showed that that a number of intense short bursts are as effective as long bouts of exercise. 3 minutes of high intensity exercise, which makes you too short of breath to speak or gives a pulse rate over a 100/minute, are highly beneficial.

As well as direct benefits to mental and physical health, there are indirect secondary benefits to partaking in regular exercise as mental health also improves with mindfulness, being with others, helping others and learning. Try to incorporate these with different types of exercise as vigorous exercise and muscle training help in different ways. For example, gardening is an exercise of variable intensity and increases flexibility but also helps you be mindful and take notice of the environment. Dancing can be invigorating but also helps balance and coordination, build confidence and if a new hobby, help brain growth. Joining a football team boosts stamina and improves strength but also improves self worth through commitment to others and comradely. A brisk walk to work is a great cardiovascular workout, provides thinking time at the start of the day and encourages environmentalism. Pilates with a friend builds core muscle strength, improves posture as well as providing the opportunity to build relationship skills.

A holistic approach to exercise can be sought by incorporating exercise in to your daily routine.  For example, a brisk walk to work alongside playing a new sport, pilates with a friend, gardening and a 3 minute run is a more wholesome and realistic approach to exercise in our sometimes hectic lives.

Reference: Pajonk FG1, et al. Hippocampal plasticity Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2010 Feb.
Gibala J. Physio 2012.


  • Serotonin increase relieves anxiety and depression.
  • Opioids and cannabinoids increase in the brain results in a high after exercise.
  • Endogenous opioids are also involved in the response to pain and stress as well as in self-control and reward.
  • There is an increase in dopamine, which helps the brain to learn and is involved in the reward circuit.
  • Noradrenalin and adrenalin are also increased.

Appointments with the consultant psychiatrists at Private Psychiatry can be booked by getting in touch with our clinic at Leigh in Kent.

We use cookies, just to track visits to our website, we store no personal details. ACCEPT COOKIES What are cookies?