Mental Benefits of Physical Exercise

by Declan Kerwin

Anyone who has taken a walk to clear their head, felt a rush of good feelings as they move down a trail, or felt the satisfaction of executing a technique perfectly for the first time has an instinctive understanding of the connection between physical and mental health. However, relatively recent advances in psychology and technology have made the relationship between physical and mental fitness even clearer and more quantifiable. Many studies have shown that exercise can help with everything from stress to memory loss, and more benefits seem to be discovered every year. Even with great progress in psychology and medicine, one of the best ways to be happy and mentally healthy is to exercise.

Exercise has been shown to help in many different mental areas; three of the most well documented and noticeable effects are improved memory, better focus, and increased happiness. According to multiple experiments, regular exercise can result in consistently better scores on memory tests in just a few months (Godman, 2014). However, at least one study indicates that even a few minutes of moderate exercise can almost immediately improve image recall (Brief Exercise, 2012). Regarding focus, exercise has an equally powerful effect. In a study of elementary school students, children who regularly engaged in physical activity demonstrated more concentrated and less disruptive behavior than those who didn’t. In the same study, students who devoted a fifteen minute break to physical activity actually scored better on tests than students who spent the break doing extra studying (Trost, 2009). This indicates that academic (and presumably occupational) performance in general is positively affected by exercise. Finally, exercise has been associated with happiness for centuries; in an 1813 book on a mental asylum, Samuel Tuke says that bodily exercise was often prescribed to treat depression. Modern science has supported this use, with studies showing that people who exercise get an immediate mood lift as well as more long term happiness.

All these studies agree that exercise is mentally beneficial, but how exactly can a jog around the block improve someone’s productivity in an office? The answer is complicated, but increased blood flow, neuron stimulation, and endorphins seem to be the most important factors. When people exercise, their heart rate increases, which results in more blood flow to their brain. While this increase in oxygen alone causes the brain to function better, an activity that requires focus along with exertion increases the benefits even more (Fields, 2010). When the brain gets more blood flow and is given difficult tasks to complete, it’s like when an athlete is given more food and an intense training course: development happens very quickly. Performing new actions (such as throwing a ball with the non-dominant hand) or any action that requires focus causes many neurons to fire, which makes more develop and builds new neuron pathways. These new neuron pathways promote creativity and prevent mental deterioration (Berns, 2008). Additionally, exercising for as little as twenty minutes can cause the brain to release endorphins, neurotransmitters that cause feelings of happiness and relaxation (Broderick, 2015). Although scientists still don’t know all of the ways that exercise affects mental health, they agree that it has a strong positive impact.

Although just about any type of exercise can improve mental functioning, some activities have a more powerful effect than others. As explained above, increased blood flow is an important factor in the connection between mental and physical health; as a result, aerobic exercise seems to have a greater impact than activities such as weight lifting (Reynolds, 2013). If an aerobic activity also requires mental engagement, the benefits are even greater. As a result, activities including most ball sports, martial arts, gymnastics, and other similar forms of exercise are very efficient ways to improve mental health. Each discipline requires aerobic activity, sustained focus, quick reactions, memorization, and creativity. These combine to cause very fast growth: in a study of elementary students, children who participated in activities like these for forty minutes a day had an average IQ increase of 3.8 points, compared with none in students who didn’t exercise (Mercola, 2012). However, other studies have used subjects ranging from elementary school age to people in their 80s and found similar results. As long as someone can exercise, they can improve their mental health.

Today, drugs or therapy can be prescribed for almost any mental problem; however, in many cases, exercise works just as well or better. Exercise can improve anyone’s outlook, whether they are fighting depression or are just low on energy. It can help a student with ADD to improve his or her grades. It can even slow the progress of dementia and other mental problems associated with aging. Additionally, since many forms of exercise are done in groups, people can improve their social skills and make new friends. When increased life expectancy, improved sleep, lower risk of cancer and other diseases, weight control, and all the other benefits of exercise are contemplated, it is clear that exercise is one of nature’s most powerful medicines.

Berns, G. (2008, October 1). Neuroscience Sheds New Light on Creativity. Retrieved September 18, 2015.

Brief exercise immediately enhances memory, UCI study finds. (2012, November 26). Retrieved September 17, 2015.

Broderick, E. (2015, January 27). Seratonin Endorphins & Exercise. Retrieved September 18, 2015.

Fields, D. (2010, December 4). Brain Health: How Exercise Can Stimulate the Birth of New Neurons. Retrieved September 18, 2015.

Godman, H. (2014, April 9). Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills – Harvard Health Blog. Retrieved September 17, 2015.

Mercola, D. (2012, September 14). New Proof that Exercise Improves Brain Health. Retrieved September 18, 2015.

Reynolds, G. (2013, April 10). Getting a Brain Boost Through Exercise – The New York Times. Retrieved September 17, 2015.

Trost, S., & Van de Maar, H. (2009, December 1). Why We Should Not Cut P.E. Health and Learning, 60-65.

Tuke, S. (1813). Description of the Retreat, an institution near York, for insane persons of the Society of Friends. London: Dawsons of Pall Mall.