Why Exercise Matters for your Mental Health + Wellbeing

By now you probably have a pretty good idea that exercise is good for your health. Exercise can either directly or indirectly prevent a wide range of health problems, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, hypertension and osteoporosis[1]. But is there more to what exercise can do for you?

Exercise and your Mental Health + Wellbeing

To build an even stronger case for why exercise is good for you, let’s look at the benefits of exercise beyond your physical health. A recent study of 7000 participants found that people who exercise are less likely to be diagnosed with mood and anxiety disorders. And for those who already have a mental health diagnosis, recovery is more likely for people who exercise than for people who don’t [2].  

The benefits of exercise, particularly in the treatment of depression have been well established [3]. In fact, some studies have found exercise to be as effective a treatment for moderate depression as medication, with superior results maintained down the track [4].

In our experience, exercise is one of the first things to go when people experience a drop in mood and it gets a bit tough to get going. Things can rapidly spiral downwards when we consider the following path:

Feeling down --> Low motivation --> Do less --> Feel worse about not having done much.

Exercise can help us stop the downward spiral though, and instead start to spiral upwards instead: 

Feeling down --> Exercise even if you don’t feel like it --> Mood is boosted --> Motivation to do more increases.

As you can see, the potential for exercise to have a positive impact on our mood is yet another thing in favour of getting moving.

Exercise and your brain’s performance

Exercise doesn’t just improve our health, mental health, and wellbeing. It also helps protect against the decline in cognitive performance which can be associated with ageing – in an ageing population where dementia is becoming more prevalent, anything that may help protect our risk is surely worth considering [5].

Even in younger populations there is evidence that as little as one single session of exercise can have a positive impact on cognitive performance [6]. So in short, if exercise is going to make you smart, healthy and happy, what do you have to lose?

Altogether, the evidence for making exercise an integral part of your life is compelling. But what if you've tried in the past, and in spite of your best intentions you lose momentum after a while and then just give up? Let’s look at some simple tips for getting started with exercising and making it stick.

How to make exercise a habit

1.      Decide on a realistic regular routine and stick to it.

If you’re just starting out be sure that you are not overreaching. Set your goal too high and you’re likely to feel deflated when you can’t reach it. So set small, realistic goals that you know will fit your lifestyle.


2.     Mix it up to help you stay engaged.

An exercise plan that mixes up different types of activities is good for your body as well as your boredom threshold. So throw in some cardio, as well as some weights. Do a team sport as well as a class, or something just on your own.


3.    Be clear on what motivates you to keep at it.

Keep your reasons for exercising at the front of your mind. Are you doing this for your health? Your mood? To give you more energy? And keep note of your progress. Celebrate your achievements both big and small.


4.    Use your support network.

A buddy system can be a great way to stick at it when your motivation is waning. Two or three buddies is even better. You might be able to convince one friend that it’s too cold to go out for your usual run, but convincing three friends? Might be easier to just get on those running shoes now.


5.    Know when to call in the professionals.

You don’t need to spend a lot of money on fitness, or have your every move tracked by a professional or an expensive gadget. But there’s a time and a place for calling in the experts. If you have been injured, have a chronic condition, or your health status has changed, make sure you check in with your GP or a qualified professional to see that your exercise plan is a good fit for your needs.


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[1] Warburton, D., Nicol, C., & Bredin, S. (2006). Health benefits of physical activity: The evidence. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 174, 747-749.

[2] Ten Have M., De Graff, R., & Monshouwer K. (2011). Physical exercise in adults and mental health status findings from the Netherlands mental health survey and incidence study (NEMESIS). J Psychosomatic Research, 71, 342-8.

[3] Craft, L.L., & Perma F.M. (2004). The benefits of exercise for the clinically depressed. Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 6, 104-111.

[4] Blumenthal, J.A., Babyak, M.A, Moore, K.A., Craighead, W.E., Herman, S., Khatri P., Waugh, R., Napolitano, M.A., Forman, L.M., Appelbaum, M., Doraiswamy, P.M., & Krishnan, K.R. (1999). Effects of exercise training on older patients with major depression. Archives of Internal Medicine, 159, 2349-56.

[5] Kirk-Sanchez, N.J.  & McGough, E.L. (2014). Physical exercise and cognitive performance in the elderly: Current perspectives. Clinical Interventions in Aging, 9, 51-62

[6] Chang, Y,K., Labban, J.D., Gapin, J.I., Etnier, J.L. (2012). Corrigendum to “The effects of acute exercise on cognitive performance: A meta-analytic review” [Brain Res. 1453 (2012) 87–101]Brain Research, Volume 1470, 159.