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Be Happy! Exercise for Mental Health

In this article we are going to look at the effects of physical activity on mental health and wellbeing.

By Katie Radzieta, Personal Trainer at Wynyard

We are all aware that participating in regular physical activity has many benefits for both our physical health, and our mental health. As mental health awareness grows in importance, in this article we are going to look at the effects of physical activity on mental health and wellbeing. I feel this is especially important as we all navigate our way out of the coronavirus storm.

We’ve all had to deal with so much in the last few months, and it’s been difficult for everyone. What’s important is to remember that no one’s issues and concerns are any less important than anyone else’s. What’s important is that you find people you trust and who you can confide in so that they may help lighten your burden. That is what is so great about being part of a community like Vision. We are all in this together.


Benefits of Exercise

We know that exercise and physical activity have many benefits with regards to our physical wellbeing, including (3,5,6,7):

  • Reduces the risk of various illnesses and conditions including heart and lung disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease,
  • Helps to lose and control weight,
  • Helps to strengthen bones, muscles and joints,
  • Lowers the risk of falls,
  • Increases energy levels, and
  • Improves sleep

In addition to the above, exercise has been shown to have a positive effect on our mental health and wellbeing. Whether you’re just having “one of those days” or perhaps you’re experiencing more persistent symptoms of stress, depression or anxiety, exercise has been shown to provide the following benefits to our mental wellbeing (5,6,7):

  • Provides a distraction from daily worries.
  • Decreases stress levels.
  • Increases energy levels.
  • Improvement in mood.
  • Reduces severity of depression and anxiety.
  • Increases energy and productivity.
  • Increases brain power and improvements in memory.
  • Increases self-esteem and confidence – looking good, feeling good.
  • Improves sleep – which itself can have a positive effort on mood, anxiety and depression.


Exercise, a Sweaty Distraction

When you set a goal, you have to plan when you will make time to do the activity that will help make that goal a reality. In making exercise part of your schedule, it may serve as a kind of distraction away from everything else, where you can focus on yourself. If you are really struggling to find the motivation to exercise, making it part of your routine will mean that you won’t have to rely on your own willpower to get it done – it will become a habit (4).

As you know – and if you train with a personal trainer, you would know more than most – when you exercise, you must concentrate on what you’re doing. You have to focus on running that extra 100 metres, or completing that extra set of bent over rows. You have to focus on your breathing while maintaining good form. It is for these reasons that participating in physical activity can help distract you from worries or concerns that you may have.


Exercise and Your Brain

Let’s get into the science stuff, but only a little, I promise. 

As you know, when you exercise, there is an increase in blood circulation and the increase in blood circulation specifically to your brain is believed to have a direct influence on what is called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis (6), which is the body’s central stress response system. The HPA axis includes the limbic system, which controls motivation and mood; the amygdala, which is responsible for generating fear in the presence of a stressor; and the hippocampus, which is mainly involved in forming memories, as well as mood and motivation. The HPA axis controls the release of various chemicals in response to stimuli, including external stimuli such as physical exertion. The exercise-induced increase in blood circulation to the HPA axis is believed to be the reason that you experience improvements in your mood, and a reduction in the severity of stress, anxiety and depression (6).

Endorphins are one kind of chemical that are released by the brain during exercise and these chemicals help relieve pain and stress (2,3,4). Dopamine and serotonin are other chemicals that are also released during exercise. Dopamine is responsible for making you feel pleasure, and provides a sense of satisfaction and motivation (1). When you finish a difficult workout, or any kind of task, and you feel good, you can thank your friend dopamine!

Serotonin acts to boost your mood and overall sense of well-being, as well as having a direct impact on your sleep cycle and appetite (2,3,4). We all know that the better you sleep, the happier you feel and so the continuous cycle of those feel-good effects as a result of the release of serotonin during physical activity just keep coming.

Thanks to simply moving your body, you get all of these ‘happy hormones’ flowing which help you to think more clearly, and feel great. As time goes on, and you experience more of these feel-good moments, you are motivated to continue with the activities that make those moments possible. You start to notice that you feel and look fitter and stronger, and this gives you more confidence, improved self-esteem and greater happiness.


Exercise and Social Interaction

We mustn’t forget the high we get when we train with our friends and family (4,7). When you belong to a community of like-minded people, not only are you more likely to set and achieve your goals, but you are also going to enjoy the journey.

We all know how hard it has been ever since the coronavirus pandemic started. Thankfully during the lockdown period we had the technology that allowed us to stay connected with the people in our lives. I know it wasn’t the same and we all missed seeing loved ones, we craved a good hug, or wished we could high five our workout buddy after a great session. The loss in social interaction and human connection, which have likely been important in keeping stress and anxiety at bay for most of our adult lives, has taken a massive toll on many people across the globe (8). Now that things seem to be improving, we can take full advantage of exercising with friends and family. This helps us feel connected and provides an opportunity to catch-up with our loved ones, with the added bonus of working towards our health and fitness goals.

Everyone has things going on. Some people will share their trauma, difficulties, and worries. While others choose to keep it to themselves. One of the great things about being part of a community like Vision is that everyone is there to support you, no matter what you have going on. When you have a great support network, you can trust that not only will the people in your support network keep you accountable and continuously working towards your goals, they will always have your back.


When Life Happens…

It can be disheartening when you don’t reach a goal by a certain time, for example, if you set a goal to lose a certain amount of weight in 3 months, but don’t get there. It can be easy to think – well why am I doing this? What’s the point? Life can be difficult and unexpected. No one has ever achieved all of their goals in exactly the way that they planned. Indeed, sometimes we move two steps towards our goal, and one step back, and that’s okay.

We plan, and we set goals, even though we know that every now again something might happen that might throw us off course for a little while. Life happens and there’s nothing we can do about it. We set our goals to keep us on track, and to keep ourselves accountable. It’s not what happens that matters, what matters is that we keep going. You must remember to be kind to yourself and focus on the effort that you put in each time you get your butt moving.

 “It’s not about perfect. It’s about effort. And when you bring that effort every single day, that’s where transformation happens. That’s how change occurs.” - Jillian Michaels

Get into the habit of moving your body every day. It might be at the gym, going for a walk in the park, playing soccer or netball with some friends, or a combination of all of those things. It can even be something as simple as walking to the shop to get the food to make breakfast, or using the stairs instead of the escalator. It is recommended you aim for 30 minutes of ‘vigorous’ activity five times a week (4) – and by ‘vigorous’ we mean activity that is difficult enough that it makes it hard to have a conversation while you exercise.

However, any exercise is better than no exercise and so if you cannot commit to a strict 30-minute-sessions-five-times-a-week kind of schedule, then don’t. Do what works for you, and what makes you happy.


Professional Help

If you ever feel like you are not coping and you need someone to talk to, it is always best to consult your doctor. You may also want to consider looking into Beyond Blue or Lifeline, both of which provide the support and information you need to achieve your best possible mental health.

Beyond Blue
1300 22 4636

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References and Further Reading

  1. Dopamine, March 2019, [online], Available at:; Accessed: 17 August 2020
  2. Exercise, Depression, and the Brain, 25 July 2017, [online], Available at:; Accessed: 12 August 2020
  3. Exercise and mental health, November 2019, [online], Available at:; Accessed: 13 August 2020
  4. Exercise your way to wellbeing, [online], Available at:; Accessed: 13 August 2020
  5. Fraser, C 2019, “Exercising your mental health muscle”, [online], Available at:; Accessed: 13 August 2020
  6. Sharma, A, Madaan, V & Petty, FD 2006, “Exercise for mental health”, The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, vol. 8, no. 2, DOI:; Accessed: 13 August 2020
  7. Physical Activity – it’s important, August 2018, [online], Available at:; Accessed: 13 August 2020
  8. Garel, C 17 August 2020, Burnout is a hidden COVID-19 crisis, and you might have it, [online], Available at:; Accessed: 20 August 2020

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