Exercise and mental health
Exercise has many benefits, not only for your physical health but also your mental health. In your brain, exercise stimulates chemicals that improve your mood and the parts of the brain responsible for memory and learning.
Exercise can also assist in mental health recovery. You can start slowly, and work on overcoming obstacles like motivation, cost and time.
What are the benefits of exercise?
Physical activity and exercise has many benefits. It can:
- help you to feel better, even if you’re feeling okay
- reduce the risk of illnesses like heart and lung disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, cancer, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson's disease
- help people recover from a stroke and many other illnesses and conditions
- help you to lose weight if you want to, which is good for your health overall and might be good for your self-esteem
What are the mental health benefits of exercise?
Exercise releases chemicals like endorphins and serotonin that improve your mood. It can also get you out in the world, help to reduce any feelings of loneliness and isolation, and put you in touch with other people.
If you exercise regularly, it can reduce your stress and symptoms of mental health conditions like depression, anxiety or schizophrenia, and help with recovery from mental health issues.
It can also improve your sleep, which is important in many different ways.
Exercise and the mind
Exercise pumps blood to the brain, which can help you to think more clearly.
It increases the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory.
It also increases the connections between the nerve cells in the brain. This improves your memory and helps protect your brain against injury and disease.
How much exercise do I need?
Australian guidelines recommend adults do at least 30 minutes of moderate to intensive physical activity on most or all days of the week. You can make up 30 minutes over the day by combining shorter 10 to 15 minute sessions.
Practising mindfulness while doing exercise also reduces your stress and improves your mental health.
If money is a worry, think about local community centres, which often have affordable exercise groups. And if you have private health insurance, you might get help for gym membership as part of a mental health treatment plan.
You may struggle finding motivation, or staying motivated for exercise. Think about ways you can make exercise part of your daily routine and lifestyle. Choose something you enjoy, and ask your friends or family to help motivate you and to keep you on track.
If you own a dog, take them for walks in your local area.
Combine your exercise routine with a healthy diet to boost your motivation and energy for exercise.
How do I start exercising?
You don’t need to visit a gym to exercise. Consider ways you can incorporate exercise into your daily routine and lifestyle. Pick something you enjoy, and use your friends or family as motivators to keep you on track.
- Enjoy the benefits of owning a pet — if you own a dog, make the most of your local area for their walks. You could walk in a park or by a beach if they are nearby.
- If you enjoy dancing, try a creative dance movement class.
- If you can’t move around easily, swimming might work for you.
- Seated exercise is an option for people with a disability.
For walking, a pedometer helps you set goals by monitoring your steps, aiming for 8,000 to 10,000 steps per day. Exercise is also a good time to try mindfulness self-awareness training.
Jean Hailes for Women’s Health has a list of activities for men and women to give you some ideas on where to start.
Overcoming obstacles to exercising
- Motivation: You may struggle with motivation for exercise. Start slow, set small goals, and use a mood monitor to keep track of any change in your mood.
- Cost: Local community centres often have affordable exercise groups. And if you have private health insurance. you might get financial assistance for gym membership.
- Anxiety or feeling intimidated: You might feel uncomfortable joining a group exercise class. This is perfectly normal. Take a friend with you for the first time, or download an app to exercise in your own home.
- Time: If you are short on time, break exercise into small chunks. Instead of doing 30 minutes in one go, do three lots of 10 minutes in a day.
- Physical: if physical obstacles such as injuries are making it difficult to exercise, you may benefit from seeing a health professional such as a physiotherapist to help you recover.
Resources and support
- Jean Hailes for Women’s Health has a weekly activity diary and provides tips on how to implement an exercise program.
- The Black Dog Institute has information on depression and benefits of exercise.
- SANE Australia has information on ways to look after your physical health, including physical activity.
- SA Health has information on the beneficial effects of walking on mood.
- Contact Head to Health for advice, assessment and referral into local mental health services — call 1800 595 212 from 8:30am to 5pm on weekdays (public holidays excluded)
If you need more information and support, visit Mental Illness Fellowship of Australia (MIFA) for resources, helplines, apps, online programs and forums.
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Last reviewed: November 2020