Move your body, refresh your mind: the mental health benefits of exercise

By Holly Stout, RN, BSN   •  December 18, 2023

What is mental health?

This topic has been at the forefront of the health scene in recent years. The isolation and change in
lifestyle brought on by COVID-19 have led to an increase in mental conditions such as anxiety and
depression, stress, and insomnia. According to the American Psychological Association, mental health is defined as “A state of mind characterized by emotional well-being, relative freedom from anxiety and disabling symptoms, and a capacity to establish constructive relationships and cope with ordinary demands and stresses of life”.

You may be wondering if you are just having occasional mental health symptoms or if there is something more going on. When symptoms begin to impact your ability to function normally, and you are experiencing stress more often, it is considered a mental illness. These symptoms can affect your emotions, thoughts, or behaviors. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, common symptoms of mental conditions include:

  • Persistent sadness, or feelings of hopelessness
  • Noticeable changes in mood, energy level, or appetite
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Appetite or weight loss changes
  • Misuse of alcohol, drugs, or both
  • Decreased energy or fatigue
  • Excessive fear or worry
  • Seeing or hearing things that are not there
  • Extremely high and low moods
  • Aches, headaches, or digestive problems without a clear cause
  • Anger or irritability
  • Social withdrawal
  • Thoughts or behaviors that interfere with work, family, or social life
  • Thoughts of death or suicide or suicide attempts

If you are currently worried about your mental health, contact your physician. They can assess your
symptoms and provide referrals, if necessary. If you believe you are a danger to yourself or others, call the 988 suicide and crisis lifeline for support.

Mental health in women

It may seem like most women “have it all together.” Social media tends to portray the happier and more successful sides of our lives. In reality, many women know someone who is affected by a mental health condition, or they are affected themselves. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2021, greater than 27% of women had a mental illness.

There are many factors that can cause women to be at an increased rate of mental health disorders. These factors can be both internal and external in nature. Changing hormone levels affect women’s mental health throughout their lives. Puberty, pregnancy, postpartum, and menopause are all stages of life that cause fluctuating hormone levels. Postpartum depression is a common mental health condition that affects women during the postpartum period.

Women are often the primary caretakers of their children. They can also have the role of caretaker for their parents toward the end of their lives. Both roles can bring about stress and anxiety. Women who work mainly in their homes may live with feelings of loneliness. There are times when it can be hard for women to prioritize their own physical and mental health.

Exercise and Mental Well-Being

Knowing many women experience mental conditions, it is likely they are looking for ways to improve their symptoms. You may be aware that exercise can reduce the risk of conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. But did you know that your mental well-being can be improved through exercise? Well-being refers to a positive physical, social, and mental state. Mental well-being can include:

  • The sense of feeling confident in ourselves and our abilities
  • The ability to handle the challenges we face in our everyday lives
  • Feeling valued by and connected to our community
  • Feeling in control of our lives
  • Living life with a sense of purpose

The body’s response to exercise

The body naturally produces endorphins when you exercise. Endorphins are chemicals the body releases in response to pain or stress. They are commonly referred to as “feel good” chemicals because of their positive effect on mental well-being. The benefits of endorphins include diminished symptoms of depression, lower stress and anxiety levels, and enhanced self-esteem.

The body is positively affected both physically and mentally by activity. Common physical benefits include:

  • Weight loss or maintenance
  • Improved brain health
  • Strengthened bones and muscles
  • Healthy appetite
  • Natural boost of energy

Common mental benefits include:

  • Less anger and frustration
  • Increased motivation
  • Feelings of achievement
  • Decreased feelings of stress

How to incorporate exercise into your life

You don’t have to spend all day at the gym to reap the benefits of exercise. Physical activity can be as simple as walking, bike riding, swimming, gardening, climbing stairs, or participating in a sport. You can even count certain household tasks as physical activity. If an activity elevates your heart rate and increases your breathing, it can be considered exercise.

Being active with your children can be a fun way to improve your mental well-being while also connecting with them. Exercising with others around you can give you a sense of community and help with accountability. Consider incorporating nature into your activity for an added benefit.

Remember to be realistic when starting new activities. You won’t always excel at them from the beginning. Start slowly, set reasonable goals, and work towards reaching them. Think of activities that make sense for the amount of time you have and your current level of health.

Start looking for ways to incorporate exercise into different parts of your day. Whether you work at home or away from home, it may be possible to take a short walk outside or climb a set of stairs. Look around and see what simple changes you can make to increase your level of activity.

Consider talking to your doctor before beginning any new activity. Your doctor will know your general state of health and any medications you take to ensure you choose a safe exercise method.


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“COVID-19 and your mental health.” Mayo Clinic,
. Published July 22, 2023. Accessed 12/8/23.

“Mental Illness.” Mayo Clinic,
. Published December 13, 2023. Accessed 12/8/23.

“APA Dictionary of Psychology.” American Psychological Association,
. Updated April 19, 2018. Accessed 12/8/23.

“Women and Mental Health.” National Institute of Mental Health, Last reviewed May 2023.
Accessed 12/8/23.

“Endorphins.” Cleveland Clinic,
Last reviewed May 19, 2022. Accessed 12/12/23.

“How to look after your mental health using exercise.” Mental Health Foundation,
. Accessed 12/7/23.

“Mental Illness.” National Institute of Mental Health, Last updated March 2023. Accessed

“Physical activity and mental health.” Mental Health Foundation,
. Last updated August 19, 2021. Accessed 12/7/23.

“Women and mental health.” Mental Health Foundation,
Last updated October 12, 2021. Accessed 12/8/23.

“Talk To Someone Now.” 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline,
Accessed 12/13/23.

About the Author, Holly Stout, RN, BSN

Holly Stout, RN, BSN is a registered nurse who has been practicing since 2014. Her clinical experience includes gastroenterology, postpartum/nursery, and obstetrics and gynecology. She is currently a freelance health writer and stay-at-home mom. Holly has a love for patient education and uses her writing career to inform and educate consumers.

Grace Women's Organization is a 501(c)(3) non-profit on a mission to help moms be mentally, physically and spiritually healthy.

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