Exercise Management of Mental Health Conditions

Exercise is not just about improving physical functioning or physiques. Today, Longevity Exercise Physiology Drummoyne, EdgecliffMarrickvilleBella VistaRandwickPymble, and Balmain look at the evidence around exercise in managing and benefiting mental health conditions.

Mental health conditions and disorders are becoming of increasing public health significance. Not only has it grown in prevalence and awareness more recently, but the health systems in treating it has seen massive reformations as well. One of the most advocated forms of treatment for mental health in both clinical and non-clinical populations is exercise—highly valued for its ability to elicit mental health benefits with no side effects whatsoever, unlike other forms of treatment such as medication. Although exercise will not be able to entirely replace medication for some populations, it is an indispensable health tool to be used in the mental health space.

‘Research has demonstrated the positive effects of exercise on conditions such as anxiety, stress, depression, ADHD, PTSD, trauma, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia through various physiological and biochemical mechanisms, including the release of endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, reduction in inflammation, neural growth and brain activity’

What is does the evidence say?

The evidence of exercise for mental health has grown hugely in the past few years. Research has demonstrated the positive effects of exercise on conditions such as anxiety, stress, depression, ADHD, PTSD, trauma, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia through various physiological and biochemical mechanisms, including the release of endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, reduction in inflammation, neural growth and brain activity. These all contribute towards improved mood regulation, sense of well-being, energy, alertness, focus, attention, memory, resilience self-esteem and cognitive function—which all lead to improvements in mental health conditions such as the ones listed below:


Studies have shown that exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medications, with the added benefit of no side-effects. In fact, a recent study done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%. Research has also shown that maintaining an exercise can help prevent relapsing into depressive episodes.1


There is a significant amount of evidence demonstrating the benefits of aerobic and resistance exercise for anxiety, with higher intensity exercise having an advantage over lower intensity exercise. Evidence also shows that populations with raised anxiety levels benefit equally as much from exercise as those with a formal diagnosis of anxiety.2


Exercise has been demonstrated to reduce the body’s stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Although intense exercise causes an increase cortisol in the short term due to the physical stress on the body, evidence shows that there are lower levels of this hormone at night and ultimately in the long term.


Exercising is able offset the symptoms of ADHD and improve concentration, motivation, memory, and mood. Physical activity immediately boosts the brain’s dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels—all of which affect focus and attention.3 Because of this, exercise works in much the same way as ADHD medications such as Ritalin and Adderall.

PTSD and trauma

Exercise has been shown to reduce PTSD and depressive symptoms with those diagnosed with PTSD. Evidence suggests that exercise can elevate mood, reduce overall PTSD symptoms, improve sleep quality, reduce substance abuse, stress and anxiety; these benefits have been especially prominent in those who exercised more vigorously. There has also been research showing that the focusing of bodily movements and exertion can actually help your nervous system begin to move out of the immobilisation stress response that characterizes PTSD or trauma.4

Exercise for bipolar disorder

Exercise can improve symptoms of bipolar disorder through its release of neurochemicals such as endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, which all have a huge part to play in mood regulation. Exercise can thus help offset symptoms during a depressive episode, as well as serve as an outlet for energy during a manic episode.5 However, the evidence for bipolar is somewhat mixed, as some other studies have shown that exercise could also lead to worsening of manic symptoms. This highlights the importance of having a health professional such as an exercise physiologist to correctly prescribe and monitor exercise for individuals This does not discount the importance of exercise for those with bipolar disorder, as they are at a higher risk of developing health conditions such as obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke—all of which exercise can help with.

Exercise for schizophrenia

Exercise therapy has been shown to improve positive (e.g. delusions, hallucinations, movement disorders) and negative symptoms (e.g. reduced motivation, social drive, apathy), quality of life, cognition, as well hippocampal plasticity and volume (which leads to improved declarative memory) in the brains of patients with schizophrenia.6


  1. Schuch, F. B., & Stubbs, B. (2019). The Role of Exercise in Preventing and Treating Depression. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 18(8), 299-304. doi:10.1249/jsr.0000000000000620
  2. Aylett, E., Small, N., & Bower, P. (2018). Exercise in the treatment of clinical anxiety in general practice – a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Health Services Research, 18(1), 559. doi:10.1186/s12913-018-3313-5
  3. Hegberg, N. J., Hayes, J. P., & Hayes, S. M. (2019). Exercise Intervention in PTSD: A Narrative Review and Rationale for Implementation. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 10(133). doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00133
  4. Motta, R. (2019). The Role of Exercise in Reducing PTSD and Negative Emotional States. Psychology Of Health – Biopsychosocial Approach. doi: 10.5772/intechopen.81012
  5. Bauer, I. E., Gálvez, J. F., Hamilton, J. E., Balanzá-Martínez, V., Zunta-Soares, G. B., Soares, J. C., & Meyer, T. D. (2016). Lifestyle interventions targeting dietary habits and exercise in bipolar disorder: A systematic review. Journal of psychiatric research, 74, 1–7.
  6. Girdler, S. J., Confino, J. E., & Woesner, M. E. (2019). Exercise as a Treatment for Schizophrenia: A Review. Psychopharmacology bulletin, 49(1), 56–69.

Written by Jackie Cheung

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