Pete McCall by Pete McCall

Last Updated: October 12, 2023 (originally published June 7, 2016)

While the benefits of regular exercise and physical activity for health, fitness and physical performance are well known, fewer people are aware of the fact that exercise can also help improve overall mental health and create a more positive outlook. So, if you have clients or class participants who are struggling to find motivation to continue being physically active, help them recognize that regular exercise can not only help them to look and perform better, it can help them feel better, too. 

Benefits of Exercis on Mental Health

Here are six ways exercise can help improve overall mental health and outlook that you can share with your clients or participants:

  1. Exercise increases the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a neurotransmitter that can stimulate production of new brain cells. Both cardiorespiratory and muscular training can help elevate levels of BDNF, which means that these forms of exercise not only help you become more physically fit, but they can also boost your brain health. 
  2. Exercise improves memory and learning and reduces or slows progressive loss to brain cell structure and function. In addition, exercise improves brain health by enhancing its ability to grow and adapt in response to stimuli (neuroplasticity) by reorganizing its connections, structure and functions. In other words, exercise may ameliorate some of the inescapable brain-related changes that occur with aging. Improvements in cognitive function and neuroplasticity can be observed in both young and old and both healthy and clinical populations. While cardiorespiratory and muscular training create unique neurophysiological adaptations, the combination of both types of exercise leads to more exercise-induced neuroplasticity than either mode alone. In other words, different types of exercise improves brain health by targeting various aspects of brain function.
  3. Exercise can help boost self-esteem, which may positively affect your mental health. Learning how to perfect that yoga pose, finally doing a pull-up with your own body weight or lifting a certain amount of weight for the first time can leave you with the feeling that you can achieve specific tasks that you set out to accomplish, which is one of the best ways to boost self-esteem.
  4. How awesome do you feel after a good night’s sleep? Sleep is when your body repairs itself after the challenges of the day and is an important component of good mental health. A good night’s sleep is also critical for your brain to recharge and refresh, and regular exercise can enhance your quality of sleep, which can leave you feeling great all day long. 
  5. In this non-stop world, where you’re constantly being texted, emailed and generally pulled in all directions, having the opportunity to take time out of your day to focus on you may help improve mental health. Time spent exercising is an opportunity to unplug from other people and listen to your favorite music or catch up on your favorite hobby via a podcast. This, in turn, can help you change how you feel and improve your overall outlook. 
  6. Taking group fitness classes or simply being at a gym surrounded by other people working toward improving their health can help you connect with others, which is an important component of good mental health. If you’re new to an area or going through a major life change such as a break-up, your workout time can be the best opportunity for meeting new people and making new friends. Many fitness studios and group classes become mini-communities and are an excellent way to improve your real-life social network, which can have an immediate impact on your mental health. 

Research strongly suggests that improved mental health is an important and often-overlooked outcome of regular exercise. It’s also important to note that you don’t need to pay for an expensive health membership or fitness classes to receive the mental health benefits of exercise. If your clients or participants have been looking for a little extra motivation to get moving, let them know that exercise can help them feel better and improve their overall outlook on life. 

To learn more about the role of exercise in mental health, check out this video from Sami Mansfield, founder of Cancer Wellness for Life.? 


If you are interested in learning more about how nutrition, physical activity, sleep, breathing and social connections impact mental health, check out this continuing education course from ACE: A Holistic Approach to Mental Health (worth 0.5 ACE CECs).