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  • Dr. Allison Andre, DPT

Movement as Medicine: How Can Exercise Improve Mental Health and Emotional Wellbeing?

In our fast-paced and often stressful modern world, taking care of our mental health has become more important than ever. In fact, by 2020, the World Health Organization predicts that depression will be the second largest contributor to the global disease burden. You might be wondering; how can I improve my mental health? While there are many ways to support emotional wellbeing, one of the most powerful tools we have is exercise.

The link between physical activity and mental health is well-established, with research showing that exercise can boost mood, reduce stress and anxiety, and promote overall mental health and wellbeing.

In this post, we'll explore the concept of "movement as medicine" and how exercise can be used as a form of self-care for emotional wellbeing. Whether you're struggling with a mental health condition or simply looking for ways to feel better in your everyday life, this post is for you!





Engaging in regular exercise can have a positive impact on various aspects of one's life, including self-esteem, confidence, and a sense of control, all while serving as an enjoyable activity fostering social interaction and giving an outlet to let go of negative emotions. Personally, I have found that exercise as an effective means of resolving my worries and anxiety.

"Exercise is the best way to improve mood and sharpen thinking. Every major mental illness, from depression and anxiety disorders to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, is improved by exercise."

The link between exercise and mental health has been extensively studied over the years, with research consistently showing that physical activity having a powerful impact on emotional wellbeing. So, what's the science behind this?

How Exercise Improves Your Mental Health
Exercise for Your Mental Health



One key way that exercise benefits mental health is through its effect on mood. When we exercise, our bodies release a flood of feel-good chemicals, including endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. Dr. Kelly Brogan has said that:

"Exercise is the most potent and underutilized antidepressant in the world. It releases endorphins, lifts mood, and helps to restore the body to a state of balance."

Endorphins improve our mood, reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, and promote a sense of wellbeing. In fact, research has shown that exercise can be just as effective as medication or therapy for treating mild to moderate depression.



Cortisol is a hormone that is released in response to stress. It is commonly known as the "stress hormone" because it is involved in the body's stress response. When cortisol levels are high, it can have negative effects on the body and mind, including anxiety, depression, and decreased immune function.

"Exercise helps to balance cortisol levels and release feel-good endorphins, which makes it an excellent stress management tool." - Dr. Mark Hyman

Research suggests that regular exercise can reduce cortisol levels, leading to a decrease in stress and an improvement in mood, while increasing the body's ability to adapt to stress and reducing the impact of stress on mental and physical health. Regular exercise is strongly associated with a reduced risk of developing mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.

How Physical Activity Benefits Mental Health
How Physical Activity Benefits Mental Health


What are some of the benefits of exercise for mental health? In brief, here are 5 powerful benefits of exercise on our mental health:


1. Reduced risk of developing anxiety and depression.
2. Stress reduction and improved ability to adapt to stressors.
3. Promotes a sense of well-being and happiness.
4. Can act as 'medication' for anxiety and depression.
5. Reduction in anxiety.


There are various types of exercise that research has shown to be beneficial for mental health. I strongly recommend finding an exercise that you enjoy and that resonates with your body's needs to enhance your overall wellbeing. Here are some styles of exercise and how it can help your mental health:


Exercise for Joy
Joy of Movement


Intuitive movement is all about listening to your body. Movement should feel good, make you feel alive and give you joy! It involves being in tune with your body and its needs and letting them guide you, rather than adhering to a strict exercise routine.

Let's rise up and normalize movement for the sake of feeling good, not as a form of punishment to our bodies! Registered Dietitian and Personal Trainer Sonja Stilp, MS, RD has said:

"Prioritizing movement doesn't have to mean spending hours at the gym - it can be as simple as taking a walk, doing some stretching, or dancing to your favorite music."
"Exercise should be viewed as an opportunity to move our bodies, improve our health, and enhance our wellbeing—not as a punishment or a chore." - Krista Scott-Dixon, PhD, Director of Curriculum at Precision Nutrition

Intuitive movement improves your mental health by:

1. Helps individuals connect with their bodies and promote self-awareness and self-compassion.
2. Reduces stress levels and improves overall well-being.
3. Honoring the body's needs, which can promote self-love and have a profound impact on mental health.
4. Improves body image and promotes self-acceptance.

Walking for Mental Health
Aerobic Exercise for Mental Health


Aerobic exercise, like running, brisk walking, hiking, swimming, and cycling involves total body movement and increased sustained heart rate. One key benefit of aerobic exercise is the release of those feel-good endorphins! In fact, the term "runner's high" is used to describe the feeling of euphoria or a "high" that some people experience during or after prolonged aerobic exercise, caused by the release of endorphins that can induce feelings of pleasure and well-being.

"Aerobic exercise can have a profound impact on mental health, reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety and improving overall well-being." - John Ratey, MD

Some people report feeling a sense of calm, clarity, and even euphoria during or after exercise, which can contribute to improved mood and decreased anxiety.


Aerobic exercise helps your mental health by:

1. Increased blood flow to the brain, which can improve brain function and help reduce stress and anxiety.
2. Improved sleep, which can help your overall mood and body functioning.
3. Reduces the body's stress hormones via regulating cortisol.
4. Improves the brain's ability to adapt and change.


How Yoga Helps Mental Health
Yoga for Mental Health


Yoga - a mind-body practice that originated in ancient India is a form of exercise and meditation which involves physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation or relaxation techniques. Research shows countless benefits from reduced anxiety and depression, improved sleep, and improved mood and feelings of well-being, just to name a few. Dr. Chris Streeter, MD, a professor of Psychiatry and Neurology has said that:

"Yoga has been shown to increase levels of GABA in the brain, a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression."

Activates the relaxation response:

By combining different physical postures, breathing exercises and mediation, Yoga can activate the relaxation response, which is a physiological state of deep relaxation that can help counteract the body's stress response. As a result, your heart rate is reduced, blood pressure is lowered, breathing rate relaxed and you will feel calm and relaxed.

Physical postures, or asanas:

Help release tension in the body and improve flexibility, which can further promote relaxation and reduce physical symptoms of stress.

Breathing exercises, or pranayama:

Help regulate the breath and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body's relaxation response.

Meditation, or dhyana:

Help calm the mind and increase self-awareness, leading to a greater sense of emotional balance and resilience.

Increase self-awareness:

Self-awareness involves paying attention to one's thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, which can help individuals recognize and regulate their emotional responses.

Increase Mindfulness.

Mindfulness involves being present in the moment and accepting one's thoughts and emotions without judgment, developing a greater sense of emotional balance and resilience, reducing symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression.


Yoga helps your mental health by:

1. Reduced stress, anxiety and depression.
2. Improved emotional balance and resilience.
3. Triggers the body's relaxation response.
4. Improves self-awareness and mindfulness.

How Strength training helps mental health
Strength Training for Mental Health


Strength training involves working with weights or resistance to build muscle strength and endurance. Research has shown that strength training can have several mental health benefits.

One study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness discovered that strength training is effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, and the benefits can be comparable to those of aerobic exercise. Additionally, strength training has been shown to improve cognitive function and decrease symptoms of fatigue, which can promote overall mental wellbeing.

In addition to these benefits, strength training can also provide a sense of empowerment and accomplishment. Dr. Brendon Stubbs, an exercise and mental health researcher, explains that:

"Strength training provides a sense of empowerment and accomplishment, which can lead to increased self-efficacy and improved mental health."

As individuals become stronger and more capable, they may feel more confident in their physical abilities, which can help improve their self-esteem. By feeling better about their bodies and physical capabilities, individuals may also experience improvements in their body image, leading to better mental health outcomes.


Strength training improves your mental health by:

1. Improved confidence and self-esteem.
2. Decreased symptoms of fatigue.
3. Improved cognitive functioning.
4. Reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression.



While the benefits of exercise for mental health are clear, it can be challenging to make physical activity a regular part of your routine. However, with a few simple strategies, you can use exercise as a form of self-care for mental health and emotional wellbeing. Here are some tips to get started:


One of the best ways to make exercise a regular part of your routine is to make it a habit. This means setting aside specific times each day or week for physical activity, and sticking to them as much as possible. Whether it's a morning walk, a lunchtime yoga class, or an after-work gym session, find a time that works for you and commit to it.

Let me share some personal struggles that I've faced. At times, I find it difficult to fit movement into my daily routine. I feel tired, or I feel like I'm too busy to exercise. However, when I do make time for consistent exercise, I feel so much better! I encourage you to try setting aside a dedicated time in your day for some kind of movement and see how it makes you feel. It can be a small step towards improving your overall physical and mental wellbeing.

"Habit is the key to unlocking the transformative power of exercise. When we make movement a part of our daily routine, it becomes a natural and effortless part of our lives." James Clear, Author of Atomic Habits


Another key strategy for using exercise as self-care is to prioritize movement in your daily life. This doesn't mean you have to hit the gym for an intense workout every day; instead, focus on finding ways to move your body in a way that feels good. This might mean taking a leisurely bike ride, going for a swim, or simply taking a walk around the block.

"Exercise isn't just about burning calories or getting a six-pack—it's about moving your body in a way that feels good and nourishing." - Jessamyn Stanley, Yoga teacher and body positivity advocate


When it comes to exercise, setting realistic goals is key. Instead of aiming to run a marathon or lift twice your body weight, focus on smaller, achievable goals that you can work towards over time. This might mean aiming to walk for 30 minutes a day, or doing a few minutes of yoga each morning. Whatever your goals, make sure they are achievable and manageable for your lifestyle.

"Setting realistic goals is key to success in any area of life, including exercise. By setting achievable goals, we build momentum and confidence that carries us forward." - Adam Bornstein, Fitness and Nutrition Expert


Tracking your progress can be a powerful motivator for continuing with exercise. Whether you use a fitness app, a journal, or simply a calendar, tracking your workouts and progress can help you see how far you've come and provide motivation to keep going. looking back on your progress can be a source of pride and confidence, reminding you of all that you've accomplished on your wellness journey

"Keeping track of your progress can help you stay focused and committed to your fitness journey. It provides a tangible representation of your hard work and dedication, helping to build confidence and drive you forward towards your goals." - Chris Freytag, fitness expert and author.


Taking care of our mental health is essential in today's fast-paced and stressful world, and exercise is a powerful tool for promoting emotional wellbeing and supporting overall mental health.

Whether it's aerobic exercise, strength training, yoga, or simply making movement a part of your daily routine, there are many ways to use exercise as a form of self-care. By prioritizing movement and tracking your progress, you can boost your mood, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve your overall mental health and wellbeing.

So, take the first step towards a healthier and happier you by incorporating exercise into your daily routine and reaping the benefits of "movement as medicine."

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3. Shroff, F. M., and M. Asgarpour. "Yoga and mental health: A review." Physiother Rehabil 2.132 (2017): 2573-0312.

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