The effects of exercise on mental health and wellbeing

The physical effects of diet and exercise are clear and apparent. You can barely go a day without encountering a diet plan, exercise regime or supplement advertisement. But are the desired outcomes, which of course take in millions of our hard earned pounds a year as an industry, necessarily physical? Of course, looking better and feeling better is synonymous & self-fulfilling, but from a media point of view, it would be hard to deny that we’re made to feel that the emphasis is to look better.

At Vivi, we’re keen on promoting the benefits of exercise to mental wellbeing. Naturally, we have innumerate ‘before & after’ images of success stories from diet and exercise plans and startling figures of weight loss thrust before us. But we believe that magazines should make more column space for the endorsements of those who are uplifted by improving their fitness, or reaching a goal, or participating in a run, walk, cycle or swim event.

The beneficial effects of exercise on mental health

As before, we’re fully aware that this comes as a natural consequence of looking better, but why let it play second fiddle? The realities of advertising campaigns and media presence are that physicality sells. This is how and why the industry is as it is.

Of interest to us, two research trials published in Mental Health journals have given evidence to the improvement that exercise can have on one’s mental state. The trials both used what’s called the Mental Health Inventory for Depression & showed exercise to significantly improve negative symptoms of depression.

Another recurring theme amongst the scientific journals is the theory that one can ‘exercise to happiness’. It has been shown that physically active people recover from mild depression more quickly, and physical activity is strongly correlated with good mental health as people age. Depression is related to low levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin.

Exercise increases concentrations of these neurotransmitters by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system, the body’s automatic response system if you like. The sympathetic nervous system controls our ‘fight or flight’ mechanism; the physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack or threat to survival. We’ve all been there, when you get a little fright in the dark, or have a near-miss in the car.

Another factor to consider in exercise is endorphins, the chemicals released by the pituitary gland in the brain in response to stress or pain. They bind to opioid receptors in neurons, blocking the release of neurotransmitters and thus interfering with the transmission of pain impulses to the brain. Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins within approximately 30 minutes from the start of an activity. These endorphins tend to minimize the discomfort of exercise and are even associated with a feeling of euphoria. There is some uncertainty around the cause of this euphoria since it’s not clear if endorphins are directly responsible for it, or if they just block pain and allow the pleasure associated with neurotransmitters to be more apparent. The release of endorphins has an addictive effect, and more exercise is needed to achieve the same level of euphoria over time. In fact, endorphins attach to the same neuron receptors as opiates such as morphine, nicotine and heroin.

Having said this, we’re by no stretch trying to suggest that exercise is as addictive. There are many factors involved in this reasoning, such as the fact that exercise is a multi-step, multi-factorial process, unlike the previously mentioned addictive behaviours. There are a million and one things which can prevent you from exercising. The book of exercise avoidance excuses is a large one.

At Vivi, we’re aiming to provide opportunity to counter excuses.


Two trials (Beebe 2005 and Marzaloni 2008) compared exercise to standard care and both found exercise to significantly improve negative symptoms of mental state (Mental Health Inventory Depression: 1RCT, n=10, MD 17.50 CI 6.70 to 28.30, PANNS negative: 1RCT, n=10, MD -8.50 CI -11.11 to -5.89). 


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