Mental health and exercise | How movement can help our mental health

Research shows that people who exercise regularly tend to experience better emotional and mental health. Movement is also proven to help alleviate symptoms associated with mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.

Join Mental Health Prevention Lead Lisa Gunn as she investigates the relationship between exercise and mental health to demonstrate how you can use movement to reduce symptoms and improve your mood.

How movement can help with our mental health

When we exercise, our brain releases chemicals called endorphins that make us feel good. Physical movement also stimulates the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, which help elevate our mood and reduce stress.

It’s also proven to lower levels of cortisol in our blood. Cortisol is a stress hormone that’s linked to weight gain, diabetes, hypertension, and muscle weakness.

Aside from chemical responses, exercise is also great for improving the quality of our sleep, which is closely linked to mood regulation. If we get more quality sleep, we’re likely to wake up feeling fresh and alert.

There’s also the social benefits that regular exercise promotes. Exercising with others or playing sport on a team is proven to help boost feelings of togetherness, friendship, and achievement that are all closely linked to better mental health.

What symptoms can it help with?

We all know that exercise can help us stay physically healthy, but did you know it’s a powerful tool for maintaining our mental health too?

Take a look below to see what problems and symptoms regular physical exercise can help with:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Energy levels
  • Low mood
  • Fatigue
  • Confidence
  • Self-esteem
  • Socialising
  • Brain fog

How much movement should I be doing?

The NHS guidance on movement and exercise for adults aged 19 – 64 is to “do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity a week”.

If you’re confused by what this means, the best place to start is to reduce the amount of time you’re sitting still. Whether that means stretching throughout the day, or walking the dog in the evening, all of this counts towards your total for the week.

The guidance also recommends you spread activity evenly throughout the week. No matter what your starting point is, make sure to get some physical exercise in every day to help reduce your risk of injury and make movement a habit that forms part of your everyday routine.

Which movements and exercises are best?

Some people prefer cardiovascular exercises like walking, cycling and running, whilst others enjoy the mental health benefits of resistance training and weightlifting.

What exercises work best for you and your mood will all depend on a range of factors, including your physical condition, ability, and preference.

The most important thing is that you find a routine that works for you.

Cardiovascular exercise

Many people find that moving and raising their heartrate with cardiovascular exercises like running and cycling helps them feel a sense of accomplishment and achievement after a workout.

Aerobic exercise is great for releasing endorphins and reducing stress hormone production. Some studies have found that high-intensity cardiovascular exercise is more beneficial for our mental health than low-intensity variations, especially in people with anxiety.

Some of the most popular cardiovascular exercises for improving your mood include:

  • Running
  • Cycling
  • Walking
  • Swimming
  • Stair climbing
  • Boxing
  • Rowing
  • Exercise classes
  • Elliptical machine
  • Playing team sports

Resistance training

The controlled, repetitive movements used to lift weights can help promote relaxation and stress reduction.

Weightlifting is inherently linked to muscle growth which is a great way to feel more comfortable and confident in your own skin.

If you’re interested in learning more about resistance training, click here to get started.

The bottom line

The most important thing is that you’re engaging with regular exercise in a way that suits you. Experimenting with different forms of movement will help you find what makes you feel good and what works for you.

Top tips for getting started

If you’re new to exercise, you might be wondering where to start. Thankfully, this couldn’t be easier.

You don’t have to jump right into a new daunting routine if you’re not ready to. All movement is good and can have a net positive impact on our mental health. Find exercises and movements that work for you and your body and take note of how they make you feel mentally.

Keeping a diary can be a good way of tracking how different movements impact your mood and make you feel.

Below we’ve included some top tips for how to go about introducing movement into your daily routine:

Start small

Don’t start with a schedule that you can’t keep up with. Start with something that’s achievable and then begin to form a habit through repetition. You can build up the exercise once the habit is formed. 

By starting small and adding to your routine over time, you’ll find what works for you, how quickly you can recover, and whether there are certain things your mind and body don’t enjoy.

Don’t undervalue walking

Exercise comes in all different shapes and sizes and it’s important we don’t compare them against each other too much.

For example, walking is an incredibly efficient way of getting out and about. Because you’re moving slower than if you were running, you’re also getting sunlight on your skin, which is proven to elevate your mood.

If walking is your thing, setting a step counting goal for the day (no matter what your starting point) is a great way to build a sense of achievement and accomplishment.

Interested in starting a new walking routine? Click for our expert advice

Commitment and consistency

The most important part of any exercise or physical movement routine is commitment and consistency.

No matter what your first steps look like, make a commitment to stick with your plan. You’ll find that the mental and physical benefits you get out of your new routine help make this easier with time.

Listen to your mind

This advice also applies to your body.

Listen to what your mind is telling you as you’re getting started. If you’re feeling self-conscious in the gym or like you’re not worthy of physical exercise, talk things through with a friend or family member.

Remind yourself that you are worthy of exercise and that you’re doing something beneficial for both your mind and body.

Thoughts and feelings to look out for

Exercise is beneficial for how we think and move. Getting the body moving helps release endorphins that help boost our mood and improve our overall emotional and mental wellbeing.

It’s important to recognise that there are times when physical activity doesn't make us feel good. In some people, exercise and the behaviours that come with it can also contribute to negative thought patterns and other mental health problems.

Negative body image

For individuals with body image issues or eating disorders, exercise can sometimes be used as a means of controlling weight or shape.

Excessive exercise combined with restrictive eating patterns can lead to a cycle of compulsive exercise, negative body image, and disordered eating behaviours.

Developing a reliance on exercise

Some individuals may find they develop an unhealthy relationship with exercise which leads to compulsive or excessive workouts driven by a fear of weight gain or a desire for perfection.

This can contribute to feelings of guilt, anxiety, and low self-esteem if exercise goals are not met or if workouts are missed.

Developing a negative relationship with food

Using exercise as a form of punishment or to ‘compensate’ for food intake can perpetuate unhealthy attitudes toward exercise and body image.

Behaviours like diligently counting calories against what you burn during a workout can change how you think about food and exercise for the worse.

Comparison and competition

For more advanced athletes, exercising in competitive environments or comparing oneself to others can trigger feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and performance anxiety.

Constantly striving to meet unrealistic standards or comparing progress to others can undermine self-confidence and take the enjoyment out of exercise.


Exercising excessively without adequate rest and recovery can lead to physical and mental exhaustion that’s known as overtraining syndrome. Symptoms include fatigue, irritability, mood swings, and decreased motivation to exercise.

Overtraining can also increase our risk of physical injury and compromise immune functions that further impact our mental wellbeing.

When to see a professional

There is a lot of conflicting advice on the internet. Online exercise advice is typically delivered in a “one size fits all” style which isn’t tailored to your unique circumstances and situation.

If you have a dietary requirement, mental health condition, or a long-term health condition for example, this may need to be taken into account before you take up a new exercise routine.

The best way to avoid confusion and false information is to work with a physiotherapist or personal trainer, or to speak with a GP to seek out advice that’s unique to you.

Last updated Wednesday 24 April 2024

First published on Wednesday 24 April 2024