Mental Health in Motion: The Exercise Effect

"Three decades of science make it clear: exercise should be integrated into prevention and treatment of mental illness and promotion of mental wellness."


This is the conclusion of the JWB Foundation's metanalysis of the nearly 1,500 scientific research articles on physical activity and mental health published between 1990 and 2020. It is perhaps the most comprehensive report on the subject, to date.

While this report is new, the findings support a theory as old as clinical medicine. Fifth century BC Greek physician Hippocrates taught in his school that the mind and body were inextricably interrelated, and included physical activity in his treatment of mental disorders. Around the same time, but a few thousand miles East, Buddha is attributed with saying, "To keep the body in good health is a duty...otherwise, we shall not be able to keep our minds strong and clear."

What is clear, according to scientific research, is the truth behind what we have already known for thousands of years: physical activity directly impacts mental health.

And, importantly, while it generally takes several months of exercising to see any physical results (lose weight, etc.), the brain benefits can be felt immediately. Below we'll explain you how and why exercise should be an essential part of your mental health toolkit.

Do exercise and physical activity benefit mental health?

According the the JWB report mentioned earlier, 89% of all published peer-reviewed research between 1990 and 2020 found a positive, statistically significant relationship between exercise/physical activity and mental health.

What mental health outcomes are most impacted by exercise?

  • Depression. A large, longitudinal study of 33,908 participants, followed over 11 years, found that relatively small amounts of exercise provided significant protection against future depression.
  • Anxiety. Exercise is effective in improving anxiety symptoms in people with a current diagnosis of anxiety and/or stress-related disorder. Several other studies support the findings that the odds of elevated anxiety symptoms were significantly lower after physical activity exposure.
  • Stress. Several studies agree that exercise has a moderate-to-significant and immediate effect on stress. When Alan Turing, father of computer science and competitive runner, was asked why he trained so vehemently, he replied, “I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard.”


How much and how often do I have to exercise to feel the mental health benefits?

This is perhaps the greatest part of the relationship between mental health and physical exercise. You don't need a severe exercise regiment to feel the mental health effects; starting small with light-to-moderate activities, like walking, even once a week is enough to make a difference. The HUNT study we referenced earlier found that 12% of future cases of depression could have been prevented if all participants had engaged in at least 1 hour of physical activity each week.

A massive study of over 1.2 million individuals found that three to five 30-45-minute moderate to vigorous exercise sessions per week deliver the optimal mental health benefits.

Effect of Exercise on Mental Burden Study Graphic

However, while high-intensity exercise regimens are generally more effective than low-intensity regimens, it's important not to over-do it: over-exerting yourself can actually have negative effects.

Exercise improves your emotional resilience and mental well-being

The comprehensive JWB Foundation report sums this relationship up best:

"Routinely moving our bodies is a key element in the ecosystem of factors that help us to build our mental and emotional well-being. Whether pumping iron, owning the treadmill, strengthening the core with yoga or tai chi, or less rigorous activities such as walking or household chores, motion is indisputably associated with mental health benefits."

How we can help.

If you or a family member are struggling with mental health, and you need help finding a provider or have additional questions, contact our Customer Experience Advocates team. They will help you through the process.