How Physical Activity Improves Mental Health


Physical Activity Improves Mental Well-Being

Focusing on your physical well-being can be key to improving your mental health. Years of evidence have proven that exercising, even as little as moving your body for a short amount of time, has immediate long-lasting and protective benefits for the body as well as the brain which directly correlates with your mental health.

How Does It Work?

Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki has readjusted her research to focus on understanding how aerobic exercise, a cardiovascular activity that will increase your breathing and heart rate such as walking or cycling, can be used to improve human cognitive abilities such as memory, learning, thinking, focusing, mood regulation, etc.¹

Physical activity has the affect on the following brain functions that control major psychological and physical elements of our bodies. Short-term exercise has the ability to improve decision-making, focus, attention, behaviour, memory and movement.


“Exercising to increase your fitness literally builds brand new brain cells. It changes your brain’s anatomy, physiology and function,” Suzuki explains.

Instead of looking at exercise as the sole way to lose weight and be healthy, Suzuki and thousands of researchers urge people to see physical activity through a different lens which focuses on instantaneously improving the state of your emotional and mental well-being.

Physical Activity Benefits

Besides the visible benefits of exercise, physical activity attributes much more to how you feel and react. Psychological effects of daily physical activity include:²

  • Lowered levels of depression: Continuously being active can cause new activity patterns in the brain to promote feelings of well-being. This good feeling is courtesy of natural chemicals called endorphins. They are released into the body to relieve stress and pain.
  • Lowered levels of stress: Along with the endorphins being pumped out from the brain, exercise can relieve symptoms of physical pain including tense and strained muscles. By putting your body into an active mode, you will be able to actually feel the tension slowly fading away from your muscles, as well as the mind.
  • Lowered levels of anxiety: Purely focusing on body movement can break the anxiety cycle. Narrowing your mindset to a workout, whether it is 15 minutes or an hour, is enough to settle the mind of racing thoughts and give you a different perspective by the end of your workout. Adding the mindfulness component is not only anti-anxiety inducing but therapeutic.
  • Lowered levels of trauma: Similar to anxiety, focusing your entire movement and mindset on an aerobic activity such as swimming or hiking can relieve your nervous system of going into panic mode. Getting into a full-body activity can reroute your brain from diving into negative streams of thought.
  • Lowered levels of sleep deprivation: Exercise at any point in the day can promote and regular sleeping patterns.
  • Increased levels of happiness: Regular activity is an investment in your mind, body, and even your soul. Once physical activity becomes a habit, your mood will significantly improve when accomplishing your fitness and health goals.
  • Increased levels of self-love: Exercise can vastly improve your perception of your body image and athletic abilities, plus enhance your self-esteem which can positively affect your social and emotional wellness.
  • Increased resiliency: Using physical activity as a stress-reliever can help build resilience and cope with challenges in a healthy way instead of resorting to damaging behaviours.

Reaping the mental health benefits of exercise is easier than you think. You don’t have to put your body into extreme modes of physical activity to feel a difference.

COVID-19 Impacts

Isolation and province-wide restrictions have been a factor in limiting Canadian’s physical and social interactions. This can not only limit activity but also have long-term psychological effects.

Depression, post-traumatic stress, acute stress disorder, exhaustion, detachment from others, anxiety, emotional exhaustion, and irritability are among other trauma-related mental health disorders that have affected people in quarantine. However, physical activity and physical exercise interventions have been shown to produce positive impacts in most of these disorders.³

Although COVID-19 has forced strict measures to restrict the virus from spreading, you can still fulfill physical activity safely in your neighbourhood, and from home.

Start Your Physical Wellness Journey

Incorporating physical activity into your life doesn’t have to be a chore or a task item off your to-do list. There are always ways to add a fitness component to even the most mundane parts of your day.

Implement Fitness Into Your Routine

  • If you’re transitioning back to working outside of your home, consider taking your bicycle, walking, or getting off a few stops before you usually would on public transit.
  • Consider parking at the very back of the parking lot when out grocery shopping. This will intentionally add more steps to your usual routine.
  • Add some extra movement to your workday by lunging every time you travel upstairs, walk around your house waiting for your lunch, make a new rule to accomplish 30 seconds of jumping backs before entering your office in the morning and afternoon, do some pushups during work downtime—which can also clear your cluttered mind.
  • Working from home? Schedule 30 minutes from your workday to get away from your desk and complete an activity, whether that is going for a walk outside with the dog, stretching, going for a bike ride, Zumba in your living room, meditating—whatever will get you on your feet.
  • Can’t get away from your office and need to keep an eye on your computer? Try out some desk-friendly exercises that will get your heart pumping and restrict body stiffness.

Tie In The Family

  • Make it a regular weekend outing to take out all the bicycles and go for a ride around the neighbourhood.
  • Take a day away from work to go out to the mountains for a hike, to visit a lake to kayak on, etc.
  • Go one-on-one or team up with the rest of the family for a friendly game of basketball at your local court.
  • Kick a soccer ball around at your neighbourhood field.
  • Play in the background.
  • Turn on the family favourites and have a dance party.
  • Make an indoor/outdoor obstacle course.
  • Challenge each other to a family-friendly fitness competition.

Think Outside The Box

  • Participate in a virtual live gym session with a trainer.
  • Skip the pricey workout guides by following along with free, exercise-based YouTube videos.
  • Miss the in-studio cycling classes? Search for an inexpensive, but good quality cycling bike to use at home. You’ll be able to achieve the same great feeling at home as you do in the studio.
  • Get outside and start your garden/lawn maintenance. You may not notice, but maintaining the yard requires a lot of movement and physical exertion.
  • Participate as an individual or build a team in a physical and mental wellness challenge (e.g. CMHA Calgary’s Energize Don’t Hide 2021 Challenge).

Don’t Forget To Practice Self-Care

Always remember to be kind to your body, as well as your mind.

It is just as important to give yourself time to repair itself after physical activity. You can achieve this by enjoying a bath with Epson salts, having a nap, drinking water, enjoying a hot cup of tea, meditating, stretching or winding down with your favourite show, are just a few ways to reward yourself in a healthy way because self-care is essential to how you feel post-workout.

“Bringing exercise in your life will not only give you a happier, more protective life today, but it will protect your brain from incurable diseases. And in this way it will change the trajectory of your life for the better.”

Wendy Suzuki | Neurologist

¹Suzuki, Wendy. “The brain-changing benefits of exercise.” Filmed November 2017. TED video, 12:54,

²Robinson, Lawrence, Jeanne Segal, Ph.D, and Melinda Smith, M.A. “The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise.” HelpGuide. October, 2020.

³Amatriain-Fernández, Sandra, Eric Simón Murillo-Rodríguez, Thomas Gronwald , Sergio Machado, and Henning Budde. “Benefits of physical activity and physical exercise in the time of pandemic.” Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy 12, no. 1 (2020): S264–S266. Accessed April 15, 2021.


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