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Exercise for anxiety and depression?

Did you know that May is Mental Health Awareness Month?

Okay, okay, but...what does mental health have to do with functional fitness? So glad that you asked! As we are constantly learning more about functional fitness, it is apparent that there are a variety of physical benefits. However, it is incredibly important to note that regular participation in physical fitness also greatly impacts mental health.

Did you know that exercise...

  • Helps with anxiety and depression? When we’re feeling low, simply getting out of bed can feel like a massive hurdle to jump. When we are actually able to muster the energy to get to the gym or even turn on a YouTube workout, the natural chemicals, also known as endogenous cannabinoids, that are released when we’re exercising naturally enhance our overall sense of wellbeing: "In people who are depressed, neuroscientists have noticed that the hippocampus in the brain—the region that helps regulate mood—is smaller. Exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression," explains Dr. Miller of Harvard Medical School.

  • Alleviates stress? Between bustling careers and varying social lives, it is likely that we each experience a level of stress every day. While there’s a multitude of outlets that people turn to relieve stress, some are healthier than others. Some people turn to food, social media, reality tv, alcohol, or other alternatives to relieve stress. Others turn to kettlebells and stair masters. Whatever path you choose to take to relieve stress, it is important to note that life is a balancing act. Most obviously, unhealthy methods of stress relief will yield unhealthy results. However, too much of a good thing, such as physical exercise, can quickly become a bad thing. If you choose to use exercise to alleviate stress, it is important to also incorporate rest days.

  • Reduces the effects of ADHD? Some children and adults struggle with ADHD, or attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder. Because people with ADHD have lower levels of dopamine in their brains, routine exercise and a balanced diet can act as a stimulant that increases the amount of neurotransmitters sent to the brain. Additionally, exercise provides an outlet for excess levels of energy to lessen the symptoms of ADHD.

  • Decreases triggers of PTSD and trauma? Post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD) is “a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event.” 1 in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime. Analyzing the data from research studies, individuals impacted by PTSD, especially war veterans and sexual abuse victims, experienced significant mental healing through exercise programs. As hope and determination increase through physical fitness, triggers of PTSD decrease.

  • Increases sharper memory and thinking? Know that fuzzy feeling after lunch? The mental block you hit after 4:00 PM? Mentally, the demands of the day deplete our mental tank. Surprisingly, incorporating exercise into the day’s schedule can fuel the tank for memory and concentration. Remember the hippocampus that we just read about? Well, that region of the brain is also responsible for memory. Engaging in aerobic exercises will increase the size and function of the hippocampus. Consequently, studies indicate that routine exercise can also delay the onset of dementia.

  • Raises self-esteem? Remember how it felt to get a sticker on your vocabulary tests in grade school? To beat your little brother in an arm-wrestling match? Those feelings of pride and accomplishment? These mini victories in life are how we build our self-esteem. As an adult, setting and accomplishing goals can raise our self-esteem. Beyond the consequential changes in our body, physical activity also enhances our mental strength.


If you didn’t know before, after reading this blog, it should now be apparent that physical exercise positively impacts mental health. Feeling overwhelmed? It is okay to start small. Go for a five minute walk every day and gradually increase the duration of your walk. Challenge yourself to do 10 squats for each television commercial break. No matter where you start, be proud of that accomplishment. You are capable of great things!

Choosing to do something about your mental health requires courage and guidance. While physical exercise has innumerable mental benefits, seeking professional help is unmatched. If you are struggling with your mental health, please seek professional counsel. One option is to call the NAMI Helpline (800-950-NAMI), or in a crisis, text "NAMI" to 741741.

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