Triathlete cycling in wooded area

Mental health and exercise

Exercise can change our mental state

Doing exercise affects our mental state, and vice versa. Just going for a stroll can improve your mood, and making yourself get out and be active is important when you are depressed or anxious. Trials show that exercise can be as good for people with depression as drugs, and animal studies have found changes both in neurotransmitters and in the number of some types of neurons when mice and rats are allowed to exercise freely.

Feeling confident may also be linked to a lower risk of injury during heavy exercise. In one study in which former athletes were training the skills needed by their new employer, the Cirque du Soleil, more than half the trainees hurt themselves badly enough to seek help from the resident physical trainer. Those who had a low self-confidence score on a standard questionnaire were more than twice as likely to hurt themselves as those with a high rating.

The brain’s influence on exercise can also be felt in the onset of fatigue. The sensations of exercise becoming harder, and then feeling exhausted, happen before the systems that drive exercise actually reach their limits. The signal to slow down or take a break comes from the brain, processing all the information coming back from the hardworking muscles and organs and deciding it is time to ease off.

Elite athletes can be trained to control their fatigue, to some extent, and so push on harder and faster than their competitors in endurance events.

At the extreme end of the exercise spectrum, competitors in the extreme triathlon event Ironman manage to finish events that would cause non-athletes severe pain. It is possible they feel pain less acutely after their intense training or that they are better at ignoring it than non-competitors.

Lead image:

Ryan Claussen/Flickr CC BY


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Exercise, Energy and Movement’ in January 2012 and reviewed and updated in August 2016.

Physiology, Psychology, Health, infection and disease
Exercise, Energy and Movement
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development