Published January 18, 2023

How Fitness Helps Mental Health

6 Min Read

The World Health Organization estimates that over 280 million people in the world experience depression. In the US, one in five adults experiences depression that is identified as “clinically significant.” However, many people may not seek treatment fearing the stigma attached to mental health. Without treatment, some people may experience health complications or find it difficult to function in society.  

Depression and other mental health issues can also be costly. On a personal level, these could lead to more serious medical issues, unemployment, or the breakdown of personal relationships. In general, a population with deteriorating mental health affects businesses and society with soaring medical costs, lost productivity, and safety risks. But the good news is that adopting a dynamic fitness regimen can be highly effective in improving one’s mental health.

The Difference between a Bad Day and Depression

Sadness may initially look like depression or mental illness. It’s normal to have days when things don’t go right, or a life event triggers tears. The loss of a job or a loved one can be tremendously sad and linger for a time, but feeling so doesn’t mean a person is depressed. Someone experiencing just sadness still manages their daily routine, continues work or school, and within a few days or weeks starts feeling better.


Image Credits: Freepik

A person with depression will experience sadness, but it will be accompanied by feelings of hopelessness, anger, or anxiety that hold on for more than two weeks. They may also experience a change in sleep patterns—either too much or too little, lose interest in a formerly enjoyable activity, and even consider thoughts of harming themselves, or suicide. While this article is not intended to diagnose mental health issues, if these types of feelings persist, one should get medical help.

The effects of the past two years due to the pandemic have also contributed to feelings of anxiety and sadness. When feeling this way, understandably, exercise may be the last thing on your mind.

Exercise Gives You a Positive Outlook

On the bright side, a regular exercise routine stimulates new growth and neurological patterns within your brain which can lead to feelings of calm and well-being. You may have heard of the “runner’s high” which can happen with any type of exercise. While exercising, our bodies produce endorphins, a feel-good hormone that acts as both a stress reliever and a pain reducer.

Paul Reed, MD, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health with the U.S. Public Health Service stated that physical activity has positive effects on our emotional health and general well-being. As simplistic as it may sound, even a brisk daily walk may be enough to lift our mood. However, he also pointed out that exercise is not the sole replacement for mental health treatment for those who have significant challenges.

And it doesn’t have to be just a walk. An impromptu dance party in your living room, swimming at the local gym, or joining online yoga classes are just some of the ways to get you moving. Those who follow a regular fitness routine report feeling good about themselves, having less stress, and enjoying an overall joyful disposition.

Improving Your Mental Health at Any Age

Whether it’s loneliness and cognitive decline in the older population, or stress and anxiety in the youth, adopting a fitness routine has shown to be beneficial for all ages. This is because mental health also encompasses emotional health. For many, joining a pickleball league or a running club provides both the movement and socialization that prevents them from feeling isolated and alone. Therefore, as you add movement to your life, you will likely experience better sleep, lesser anxiety, and more energy. 

The effects of the past two years due to the pandemic have also contributed to feelings of anxiety and sadness

Image Credits: Freepik

Exercise that is Easy to Do 

Adding fitness to your life doesn’t mean signing up for a marathon in a snap unless you want to. It’s more important to add an activity that you will like and will stick with. Choosing an activity you enjoy and keeping on schedule may treat your mild to moderate depression as effectively as medication, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. They found 15 minutes a day of running, or an hour of walking reduces the risk of major depression by 26%. 


Image Credits: Freepik

Exercise that Works for You

There are also benefits to both group-based and solo activities. Working out with others in group fitness classes offers the benefit of socializing and reduces isolation. On the other hand, you may find that a solitary run or walk gives you time to quiet your mind. 

There are numerous studies that found consistent exercise has a positive effect, and the internet is teeming with personal stories of transforming from couch potatoes to active runners, bikers, swimmers, and more. Remember, you don’t have to go from zero to a hundred in a matter of days. Adopting an exercise routine that you enjoy and will sustain is more important than the type of activity you chose.

Seeking Help for Serious Issues

While we advocate adding fitness to your life, seeking help is vital and always the first choice if sadness, anger, loss of interest in activities, or other symptoms last longer than two weeks. If that is the case, seek help from a qualified and licensed medical professional, as soon as possible. 


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