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Exercise: a Fit Ally for the Mind

Posted January 09, 2018

Tags: self-care

(photography by Jessica DeNoia)


"Find the exercise regimen that makes you feel good, both physically and mentally."


When people think of a new lifestyle change, something often brought up is exercise. The most commonly heard New Year’s Resolution is going to the gym or “getting fit.” And even though people might not keep the promise as strictly as they intend to, it’s never too late to start again, or to start now. Exercise is great for physical health and self-image, but it is also a powerful component to mental wellness. 

You may have heard that getting your blood pumping increases your endorphins, and therefore, increases your mood. But to some people like me–who didn’t pay much attention in biology class–we wonder, what does this exactly mean? What are the ways that exercise physically improve your mood? Is there proof? Or is it placebo? After researching this topic, I’ve found out there is more than enough research to back that exercise is a valid mood-booster and should be a part of everyone’s lifestyle, especially those who experience mental illness.


Some Science

Here are some key factors that show exercise’s impact on the human mind.

  • Endorphins are neurotransmitters that “interact with the opiate receptors in the brain to reduce our perception of pain” and bring forth “feelings of euphoria, modulation of appetite, release of sex hormones, and enhancement of the immune response” (Stoppler). When humans exercise, they increase their levels of endorphins 1. Therefore, exercise can help make people feel better.
  • Norepinephrine, also known as the “stress hormone,” is a neurotransmitter that causes the body to increase its heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar to increase, as well as the pupils dilate. Norepinephrine increases and causes these bodily functions to occur in responses to stress, but also when the body exercises 2. As explained in further detailed in a study below, exercise can help people associate these bodily reactions with the safety of exercise, rather the danger of panic-inducing situations 8.
  • Dopamine is a hormone that helps improve mood 3. There are studies that strongly suggest exercise increases dopamine levels, and therefore brings up one’s mood. A study even conveys that exercise can help cure people of addiction by rewiring dopamine pathways from drugs to exercise 4.
  • The hippocampus is an organ in the limbic system that is in charge of storing new memories 5. The Department of Psychology of the University of Pittsburgh found that a regiment of exercise “increased hippocampal volume by 2%.” The shrinking of the hippocampus size comes with age, and the smaller the hippocampus, the higher risk of memory loss and dementia. The team at Pittsburgh has suggested that exercise could play a key role in strengthening the mind and memory 6.


Some Standout Studies

In a study done by Dr. James Blumenthal and colleagues, participants with major depressive disorder (MDD) were divided into four groups of treatment: supervised exercise, home-based exercise, antidepressant medication, or a placebo pill. The researchers found that after 4 months of treatment, a significant 45% of participants who exercised under supervision went into remission, meaning they no longer displayed signs of MDD; and 40% of participants who exercised at home went into remission. Meanwhile 47% of the medicated group and a 31% of the placebo group went into remission 7.

What does this data mean? While the antidepressant group went the most into remission, the two exercise groups were not far behind. The study suggests that exercise is almost as beneficial as antidepressant medication. The placebo group was also not exponentially lower, highlighting that a major component of lowering depressive symptoms probably stands on the patient’s own mindset, commitment, and expectations. Researchers followed up with the participants a year later and found that those who kept exercising had lower rates of depression 7.

Another study by Dr. Michael Otto and Dr. Jasper Smits sought to explore how exercise could help dissolve panic for people with anxiety. They hypothesized that through exposure to increased heart and respiratory rate, dry mouth, and dizziness–all symptoms of anxiety–"[people will] learn to associate the symptoms with safety instead of danger." After placing people in a safe environment where they underwent an exercise program, Otto and Smits found that the exercise participants’ levels of anxiety dropped significantly 8. The study highlights that exercise might play a key role in helping people lower their anxiety sensitivities and likelihood of panicking. 

While there are countless studies that point toward the idea that exercise is a brilliant thing for mental health, there still needs to be more research on this connection. Big questions linger...What is the best exercise activity for mental health? Why do so many people not exercise even though they know it’s good for them? Why do people quit? 

Dr. Otto encourages that culture promotes exercise as a more essential part of life. If you want to see the benefits of exercise, he says to doing it during the hardest time, when your mood is down 8.

A study from Medical College of Georgia sampled non-active, overweight children ages 7-11 and found that the children who were in the group that exercised after school for 13 weeks saw improvements in their mood and self-esteem, even though their overall body weight did not drastically change 9

Perhaps knowing that you are doing something good for your health and your body, via exercise, is a major reason why frowns turn upside down, why confidence gets a lift up. 


Some Words to Start

From the research I have gathered, it is highly reasonable to conclude that there are extraordinary mental health benefits from exercise. It also seems reasonable to conclude that you should find an exercise that you enjoy doing and will not be discouraged from doing again. Two summers ago I learned yoga from a Youtube channel called “Yoga with Adriene.” Free video classes online. Yoga helped bring balance and strength into my life. Adriene would always say to “find what feels good” and I believe that’s what you should do with exercise. 

Find the exercise regimen that makes you feel good, both physically and mentally. And mixing it up can never hurt. Now, I prefer long walks outside and my school’s gym rather than Youtube yoga. But whether, it’s yoga, swimming, walking your dog, skateboarding, dancing, tennis, soccer, biking, going to the gym, or going on a nature hike, know that you are doing a wonderful thing for your mental health.



1. Stoppler, Melissa Conrad. “Pain and Stress: Endorphins: Natural Pain and Stress Fighters.” MedicineNet,  MedicineNet, https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=55001.

2. Cassata, Cathy. “What Is Norepinephrine?” EverydayHealth.com, 11 Dec. 2015, www.everydayhealth.com/norepinephrine/guide/.

3. Izadi, M.D. Anela. “What Are the Effects of Too Much Dopamine?” LIVESTRONG.COM, Leaf Group, 14 Aug. 2017, www.livestrong.com/article/408170-what-are-the-effects-of-too-much-dopamine/.

4. Fontes-Ribeiro, C. A, et al. “May Exercise Prevent Addiction?” Current Neuropharmacology, Bentham Science Publishers Ltd, Mar. 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3137199/.

5. Mandal, MD Dr Ananya. “Hippocampus Functions.” News-Medical.net, 14 Jan. 2014, www.news-medical.net/health/Hippocampus-Functions.aspx.

6. Erickson, K I, et al. “Exercise Training Increases Size of Hippocampus and Improves Memory.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 15 Feb. 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21282661.

7. Blumenthal, James A., et al. “Exercise and Pharmacotherapy in the Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder.” Psychosomatic Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 10 Sept. 2007, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2702700/.

8. Powers, Mark B., et al. “Exercise for Mood and Anxiety Disorders: The State-of-the Science.” Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4545646/.

9. Powers, Mark B., et al. “Exercise Improves Self-Esteem in Overweight Kids.” Psych Central News, 30 June 2016, psychcentral.com/news/2009/03/19/exercise-improves-self-esteem-in-overweight-kids/4839.html.

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