The benefits of exercise for mental health

Published by PhysioExtra, June 16, 2021

Stressed, tired, lacking energy? You’re not alone.

Depression is a common mental health issue that affects 15-20% of Canadians at least once in their life. The mental health disorders seen most often (depression, anxiety disorders, adjustment disorder, post-traumatic stress, etc.) are generally accompanied by isolation, physical pain, problems concentrating, decreased energy, trouble sleeping, a dysfunctional work schedule, and physical deconditioning. Fortunately, physical activity can help us get back on track with healthy lifestyle habits and decrease, or even eliminate, the symptoms of mental health disorders.

The hormonal effects of exercise

The common mental disorders are usually caused by a hormonal imbalance— generally the release of cortisol (stress-related) and a deficiency in the neurotransmitters that control feelings of wellbeing (serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine).

Regular physical activity increases the natural secretion of serotonin (the “feel-good” hormone) and decreases the secretion of cortisol (the stress hormone), which is why exercise acts as an antidepressant. Exercise also decreases cortisol levels, resulting in a tranquilizing effect that calms our mental state. Due to its regulating effect on the hormones and neurotransmitters involved in depression, regular exercise is actually a mood booster that can help people with depression to function better.

Exercise also has long-term benefits since it reduces the risk of relapse and the need for outside help. Health professionals agree that exercise is essential for good mental health and balance. Many of the metabolic changes triggered by exercise improve brain function. For example, during physical activity, endorphins are released, contributing to a feeling of wellbeing.

A regulating effect

Physical activity also helps to lower our heart rate, increase our lung capacity, and improve our cardiorespiratory capacity. People who are living with a mental health disorder can end up feeling apathetic and isolated. Staying at home doing nothing can quickly spiral into deconditioning, leading to a drop in energy and an increase in pain levels. Physical activity can break this vicious cycle by allowing you to get active again. A lower heart rate also relaxes the body and decreases stress levels. Cardiovascular exercise helps with managing anxiety and emotions.

The importance of goal-setting

By setting realistic, measurable short-term goals, you will be able to make clear progress, increase your sense of self-efficacy, and regain control over your own health. Positive physical changes also boost self-esteem. One of the goals in mental health is the long-term maintenance of a healthy lifestyle, and physical activity is a way for you to actively improve your wellbeing. Regular gym workouts are also a way to break through your isolation by allowing you to regain a productive level of occupational performance in a normalizing environment.

Finally, physical activity is conducive to recovery and maintaining healthy lifestyle habits, which play a role in boosting energy levels.


It’s important to avoid overtraining. After getting a taste of the positive effects of exercise, some people start to overtrain, to the point that they become addicted, which actually makes the depressive symptoms worse. To maintain the long-term benefits of physical activity, it’s better to incorporate exercise into your lifestyle gradually.

Recommendations and advice

To reap the mental health benefits of physical activity, we recommend exercising for about 30 minutes at least 3 times a week. Some options include yoga, swimming, cycling, climbing, or team sports.

For recommendations or advice, you can speak to one of our professionals, who will create a personalized exercise program for you that gradually builds in intensity, helping you to get back into or maintain healthy lifestyle habits (sleep, diet, physical activity), while increasing your energy level.

Have a great workout!



Bandura, A. 1997. “Fonctionnement sportif. ” In De Boeck & Larcier (Eds.), Auto-efficacitĂ©, Le sentiment d’efficacitĂ© personnelle (1st Ed.; translated by J. Lecompte), Brussels, Belgium: Éditions De Boeck UniversitĂ©.

Chanudda Nabkasorn, et al. 2005. “Effects of physical exercise on depression, neuroendocrine stress hormones and physiological fitness in adolescent females with depressive symptoms.” European Journal of Public Health, Vol. 16, No. 2, 179–184.

Institut universitaire en santé mentale. 2008-2013. DépressionCentre de recherche Fernand-Séguin, Hôpital Louis-H. Lafontaine.

Michael Babyak, MD et al. 2000. “Exercise Treatment for Major Depression: Maintenance of Therapeutic Benefit at 10 Months.” Psychosomatic Medicine 62:6333-638.

Young. “How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs,” Journal of Psychiatry and NeuroscienceMcGill University.

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