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How exercise can boost your mental wellbeing

Author: Eleanor Riches

January 18, 2023

Reviewed by: Dr Thom Phillips

Mental health

Woman going for a run

There is increasing evidence around the benefits that a regular exercise routine can have on your mood and quality of life.

Observational research shows that a regular exercise routine can have a profound impact on your mood and quality of life. This is particularly true for people who struggle with mental health disorders, such as anxiety or depression. 

But how does it actually work? In this blog, we explore the science behind how exercise can boost your mental wellbeing.

What chemicals are responsible for boosting your mood?

The endocrine system is a network of glands that control the production and release of hormones around the body. When you exercise, these key chemicals are released:

  • Endorphins
  • Dopamine
  • Serotonin

Endorphins calm your nerves 

Endorphins are responsible for what’s sometimes known as the ‘runners high’ – a wave of positive energy experienced after exercise. Endorphins act as the body’s natural morphine because they reduce your perception of pain and can act as a sedative. This can have a particularly positive impact on people who struggle with anxiety, as endorphins help calm the nervous system. 

Dopamine sparks feelings of pleasure

When endorphins bind to opioid receptors in the body, dopamine is released. Dopamine is the pleasure hormone that helps to build a positive cycle of motivation. It does this by creating rewarding feelings associated with things you enjoy, reinforcing the desire to do them again. So, dopamine can play a powerful role in helping you stick to a regular routine and enjoy the pleasure of exercise. 

Serotonin stabilises your mood

Exercise also sparks the release of serotonin – the hormone responsible for keeping your mood uplifted and stable. Recent research found up to 90% of serotonin is found in the gut – meaning your diet is vital for both a healthy metabolism and a healthy mind. But exercise also plays an important role in helping regulate serotonin levels. 

People who struggle with their mental health are more susceptible to drastic changes in mood. By regulating serotonin levels through exercise, you can help create a more stable mental state and a positive outlook on life.

Exercise changes your brain structure

Exercise increases blood flow around the body – with extra blood being pumped to the brain. This helps you feel more alert, as well as protects your brain against injury and disease. 

Research suggests exercise can also actually change the structure of your brain. It does this by triggering new protein growth cells which grow the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for memory. 

So, regular exercise helps boost your mental wellbeing by physically improving your brain health, encouraging new cell growth and helping you feel more clear-minded.

What about the social benefits of exercise? 

Regular exercise encourages you to get out into the world – forging social relationships, building confidence and providing a sense of purpose. These elements can be incredibly beneficial to anyone experiencing low mood or depression. 

Getting outside into fresh air and absorbing vitamin D from sun exposure can also boost serotonin and dopamine production.

Exercise also forces you to be present, holding your attention and distracting you from ruminating on dark thoughts – almost like a moving meditation. These social elements are more difficult to measure scientifically but all contribute towards boosting your mental wellbeing.

What kind of exercise is best for my mental wellbeing?

The fact is – you’re much more likely to stick to a consistent exercise routine if you find a type of movement you genuinely enjoy. This will be different for each person but the UK government recommends getting at least 150 mins of moderate activity (enough to get breathless) per week, for example this could be a 30min walk at least 5 days per week.  Adults aged over 18 should also aim to do a strength based workout at least twice a week to maintain muscle bone, and mental health.

Author: Eleanor Riches Women’s+ Health Writer.

This article was written by Eleanor Riches

This information has been medically reviewed by Dr Thom Phillips

Thom works in NHS general practice and has a decade of experience working in both male and female elite sport. He has a background in exercise physiology and has published research into fatigue biomarkers.

Dr Thom Phillips

Dr Thom Phillips

Head of Clinical Services