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What you need to know about Exercise and Mental Health

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 30 September 2019
Hits: 8621

There is tons of information about the physical benefits provided from exercise, but what is not fully explained and understood is the benefits of exercise to our mental health. It is fair to say we are becoming more aware of the need to address mental health problems, and several institutes like Beyond Blue and the Black Dog institute do a fantastic job of educating the community so we can gain a better understanding of how to treat these serious conditions. It has long been known that physical activity helps with depression, but even as countless number of studies and evidence supports this, there is inconsistency into what type of exercise is best, and how much is enough? These are some of the questions we investigated in this article and the results were very surprising. 

The Damage of Too Much Stress on Your Body

Without a doubt the biggest saboteur of any health and fitness program is STRESS. It can derail the fittest and strongest person and cause a multitude of health problems. For some people it may result in weight gain, joint pain, headaches and migraines or in my case a skin disorder. When I am extremely stressed my body develops Psoriasis lesions. It took me nearly 15 years to finally get on top of this and better manage my condition. (You can see more about how I did this in the article - How I got rid of Psoriasis.

The message is clear that stress will ruin your health very quickly and you must acknowledge the damage it causes.

Stress is needed to prepare us for survival and this is called "Fight of flight" response. In a stressful situation the body secretes stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol to our arms and legs in order to help us either run away fast, or, stay and fight. This is good in life and death situations as these hormones will possibly save your life. But it is not good if this system is turned on all the time.

An unchecked stress response can cause repeated spikes in blood pressure increasing the chances of a stroke. You will begin to stockpile fat around the abdomen due to the high levels of the stress hormone cortisol being activated lowering IGF-1 and maintaining high levels of glucose in the bloodstream. This endless supply of cortisol greatly weakens the immune system and exposes the body to deadly diseases like diabetes and cancer.

For more information on exercises relating specifically to strokes, diabetes, and cancer refer to the articles below

Exercise is a great way to counter stress for it triggers the production of more insulin which means more receptors to control blood glucose and stronger cells.

We Need Some Stress

We need certain amount of stress to alert us when there is danger. For not having enough stress can also lead to health problems! I know it sounds crazy doesn’t it. But the person who sits on the couch all day and never exercises will be just as stressed out as the person who is a complete stress head and over-exercises.

The key is to find your stress sweet spot, just enough stress, but not too much, so you can help your body find its optimal health. Below is a great infographic from Precision Nutrition that gives a good visual of how they approach this.

We know that exercise can boost our mental health. It helps us become more socially active, it boosts our confidence and provides an opportunity to meet people. These are all great things in helping us to establish and maintain social connections.

The strange thing I always ask is if this is the case why do people withdraw from exercise when stressed? It seems to make no sense that they take a break and avoid the one thing that can help them and prevent things from spiralling out of control.

The obvious answer is that they feel overwhelmed and exercise just feels like more stress and more pain. Sometimes taking a break is a good thing and it could be great to reset and give yourself some quiet time. Unfortunately, the break can remain for a very long time and also result in eating of comfort foods, drinking more alcohol to take the edge off, and in some extreme cases resorting to drugs and other addictions to ease the pain.

There is obviously no easy answer to this and each person is unique in how they react and perceive the world around them.  

One of the best books to read about the benefits of exercise and its effect on our brain and mental health is called "Spark" by John J Ratey MD. In this book he provides tons of startling research and case studies to the benefits that exercise can provide. I highly recommend getting a copy as it will blow your mind. I will share some of the stories and research throughout this article.


Can Exercise Prevent Depression?

Recently I read a great article during the week by Brad Stulberg that examined the results of exercise with depression. In his article he provided some great research and insights into the results of studies about this complex topic.

He raised some good questions about why people do not exercise when they are suffering with depression. A great quote that stuck with me was,

“Lots of studies show that the more someone exercises, the less likely they are to have depression. Yes, people may not experience depression because they exercise. But it’s also quite possible that people don’t exercise because they are depressed.”

The article examined results of several studies to see if there was a correlation with exercise preventing depression in people who were active but with no symptoms of depression. In all there were 49 such studies that followed 267,000 people and included different types of exercise.

They found that exercise reduced the chances someone would experience depression by between 17 and 41 percent! This is a very large number when you consider how many people it observed across several countries, ages, and sexes.

They concluded,

“Put simply: exercise helps prevent depression. Just because you exercise doesn’t mean you won’t ever become depressed, but it certainly reduces the chances that you will.”

Can Exercise Help if You Already Have Depression?

The second part of the article looked at how exercise could help with someone who is already suffering with it. This is where gets a bit messy for there is so many variables to consider and what works for one person, does not work with the next.

“Exercise can improve depressive symptoms in people with depression,” write Schuch and Stubbs. “However, similar to other treatments, exercise is not a panacea and may not work equally for all.”

Once again they completed several studies to observe the results across a wide range of different people.

The completed 25 studies that surveyed a total of 1,487 people and found that between 40 and 50 percent of people with depression respond to exercise, with an effect that, on a scale of small, medium, or large, is considered large. These are similar results to talk therapy and medication. I was surprised to see that the dropout rate for exercise was around the same number for medication and talk therapy. I assumed it would have been much greater with exercise, and just goes to show that it is important to evaluate studies like these to gain a better understanding. They also mention that all of these treatments can, and should be used together, to enhance the overall benefit to the person.

These are very significant numbers and very consistent with the research and statistics provided by many of the leading organizations on mental health all over the world.

However, what they did not mention was what type of exercise is best to do? How intense does it need to be? And how much is enough?

What Type of Exercise is Best to Use?

Now that we have established that exercise is essential, what type of exercise is best to use? In the book called "Spark" that we mentioned earlier, the author concludes multiple times that it is aerobic activity that is the best choice. Activities like running, cycling, swimming and basically anything that gets you sweaty and your heart rate up.

This really surprised me for I have always found this type of exercise the most difficult to help people with severe depression take part in. The minute the exercise became demanding their mind would switch off and not enjoy it at all. Of course there were some exceptions as I had some clients who would run excessively and use this as their coping strategy.

John Ratey MD states,

"Regular aerobic activity calms the body, so much that it can handle more stress before the serious response involving heart rate and stress hormones kick in. It raises the trigger point of the physical reaction. In the brain, the mild stress of exercise fortifies the infrastructure of our nerve cells by activating genes to produce certain proteins that protect the cells against damage and disease. It also raises our neurons stress threshold."

"Research from kinesiologists to epidemiologists shows again and again that the better your fitness level, the better your brain works. Charles Hillman provided that fit children score better than unfit children on cognitive tests of executive function; Arthur Kramer showed that getting in shape increases brain volume of older adults; and population studies including tens of thousands of people of every age show that higher fitness levels relate directly to positive mood and lower levels of anxiety and stress."

 An important part in the book I found interesting were the studies relating to older adults and the effect of exercise had for preventing Alzheimer’s disease.

"A team led by neuroscientist Arthur Kramer divided 59 sedentary people ranging in age from 60-79 into two groups that would hit the gym three times per week for one hour over a six month period. Members of the control group embarked on a stretching routine, and the others walked on treadmills, starting out at 40% of their maximum heart rate and ramping up to 60-70%. The only variable was fitness, and indeed, after 6 months, the walking group averaged a 16% improvement in their maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 Max) which is a measure of the lungs capacity to process oxygen. But the real ground-breaking finding came from the MRI scans before and after, those with improved fitness had an increase in brain volume in the frontal and temporal lobes."

From all the research conducted the conclusion was that exercise that gets you sweaty and out of breath has the biggest effect. This may surprise many people like myself who thought the answer would be with things like meditation, Tai Chi, or Yoga and the more calming exercises. While there is also great benefit to using these modalities, the evidence from the endless amount of research conducted by John J Ratey is that it is the more physical exercise that is best.

The Danger of Too Much Exercise


Now while exercise is great, there is a point where people can overdo it and what was going to provide a great outcome, now does the exact opposite. There must be a balance between training hard and recovery.

We have covered this in great detail before in our article - How To Avoid Over-training & Maximize Results

 The big problem I see with many people who have found that exercise combats the feeling of depression and anxiety is that they become addicted to the rush. This is what is known as the "runners high" and unfortunately it can be abused which I have seen many times this year. This is where someone will be in extreme pain but continue to push themselves into more pain to get the "fix", until eventually the pain and injury becomes so severe they can barely move.

 A great book to read about this happening to a lady who went into extreme addiction is called "Fit Not Healthy" by Vanessa Alford. This is a classic example of where someone is addicted to the runners high and all the positive health improvements are eventually wiped out from excessive training.

You Must Move Well Before You Move More!

This is where we begin see some physical problems arise when people apply the conclusions provided by John J Ratey without appreciating the damage exercise can cause if your technique is not great. For all the great findings provided from the research and studies examining the effect on mental health there was no reporting on the incidence of injury or musculoskeletal problems resulting from exercise. To assume that there was no injury as a result of introducing exercise would be foolish.

I cannot tell you how many people I see for serious bulging disc injuries, knee or hip problems caused from excessive cardio training. At no point did these people consider learning to move well before applying fitness methods like running and cycling.

Sure they may be helping their mental problem, but at the same time they are creating some serious physical problems that will eventually derail their exercise program completely. And if their exercise comes to a grinding halt because of pain and injury you are now back where you started. As much as I acknowledge the benefit of cardio exercise to your state of mind it still must be treated with respect or it will only serve to give you more problems and stress.


Before you can apply fitness principles you must always address the fundamentals of movement and nutrition first. Fitness must be earned, and this is done by applying health principles first. Something I like to tell all my clients is “You cannot solve a health problem with a fitness solution”.

For example if I wanted to take up running I would start out with walking and making some positive changes to my diet. I would also begin strengthening my legs in preparation for running and get some coaching tips for the best running technique and how to design a gradual progressive program. This would ensure I remain injury free, and maximise my efforts to achieve great mental and physical health.

Grab a copy of our Functional Training Free Report below to get ideas of how to do this. If you need some help with nutrition there is a great report you can download from our shop with simple to follow tips and ideas for getting your food right. Click the image of the book you need to get your copy.


What About Strength Training, Yoga & Tai-Chi?

I must admit I was surprised to see that strength training was not rated with more importance. Much of the research conducted about exercise and the effect on mental health had been with cardio type exercise.

However, why they often conclude the evidence supports more cardio, they could not ignore the positive effects of strength training for building muscles and protecting joints, or the improvements of balance and flexibility.

One factor that was clearly affected by strength training was the effect of Human Growth Hormone (HGH). The found that the levels of this hormone doubled during a strength workout of squats and deadlifts versus the group that used running. The HGH is paramount to many critical factors in the body in maintenance of health.

Without doubt it is the single most important activity any one over the age of 40 should be doing. The older you are, or the sicker and injured you are, the more important this becomes!

You must think of exercise and in particular strength training as medicine, and not as a luxury you could maybe add in to your lifestyle. It should be right up the top, along with quality nutrition, as the most important tasks to do regarding your health.

If I have not yet convinced you then take a look at the list of benefits you can achieve from completing a strength program 2-3 times per week of only 30-45 minutes each session!

  1. Muscle is the biggest influence on your metabolic rate. The more you have the faster your metabolism and the easier it is to lose weight
  2. Muscle regulates hormones and helps to prevent disease like diabetes and cancer often caused from insulin resistance
  3. Muscle improves bone density and prevents bone fractures, osteoporosis, sarcopenia, and can even reverse arthritis.
  4. Muscle prevents injury and improves stability across all joints

Good articles to read about this are below

Lastly in terms of my observations of working with people suffering with depression and anxiety is the difference in their approach to life when they become stronger. I don't know anyone who does not want to be stronger. The difference it can have on your outlook on things is incredible. And you cannot improve strength via cardio or fitness activities. Sure, they are good fun and can give you a high, but they cannot provide everything you need.

Yoga, meditation and Tai Chi are other great forms of exercise that can easily be added to any program. Again there is tons of research supporting these and without doubt they can make a big difference to all of us. I myself love Tai Chi and 10 years ago completed a course to obtain certification to teach other people how to do this.

Below is a video of a simple routine I do each day.



This is certainly a very big topic to cover and we have provided you with a lot of information that really is just scratching the surface. I encourage you to grab a copy of those books I mentioned throughout the article as they have so many great stories and information that may change your life, a family member’s, or a friend’s.

My conclusion on all this information is to find a balance with your exercise between strength and cardio and if you are in a dark place try to make an effort to get outside as often as you can. That does not mean you need to go running every day, sometimes a long walk is all you need. And a few times per week walk a bit faster or take the stairs to get yourself sweaty and out of breath. Combining other methods like Yoga and Tai Chi will enable you to recover faster, and your brain will begin to make biochemical changes to how you see the world. It will not happen overnight, but it will happen and hopefully open the doors to new things that may excite you and help get you out of the rut.

Mental health is a serious issue and I hope this article provides you with some great information to both treating and managing your health issues with exercise.

However, if you feel that you may be affected by depression or anxiety remember they are treatable conditions and effective treatments are available. The earlier you seek support, the better.

If you live in Melbourne and would like to know more about our personal training programs click the image below to request a free consultation.


About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 14 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, Level 2 Holistic Life Coach, Accredited Tai-Chi instructor, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specializes in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.


  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Spark - by John J Ratey
  • Precision Nutrition
  • Breaking the habit of being yourself - Dr Joe Dispenza
  • Kiss that Frog - by Brian Stacey
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions - by Evan Osar
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
  • How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy by Paul Chek
  • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek