Exercise and mental health
Exercise and mental health

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Exercise and mental health

3 Why does exercise improve mental health?

So far, we have seen lots of evidence to show that exercise can have a positive impact on mental health, but why is this the case? What is it about engaging in physical activity that leads to enhanced mental health? In the next activity we will attempt to answer this question.

Activity 4 Why does exercise benefit mental health?

Timing: Allow about 35 minutes

Make a list of the reasons you think might explain why exercise improves mental health.

Now listen to Track 2, ‘Physical activity and mental health: why does it work?’. In this clip, Dr Gaynor Parfitt and Professor Adrian Taylor discuss some of the proposed theories about why exercise enhances mental health.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Physical activity and mental health: why does it work?
Skip transcript: Physical activity and mental health: why does it work?

Transcript: Physical activity and mental health: why does it work?

Dr Gaynor Parfitt - Exercise Psychologist, Exeter University:
Physical exercise’s impact on mental health ought to be able to work for everybody, basically because of the potential underlying mechanisms that are thought to explain why physical activity would impact. And those mechanisms range from very specific impacts of physical activity on neuro-transmitters in the brain through to the effect that just going for some physical activity exercise has as a time out, as a distraction from your day-to-day worries. Each of those theories – whether we're talking about a neuro-transmitter explanation or an endorphin explanation, or we're talking about the mastery, the confidence that you may get from exercise – all have some strengths, and they all have some weaknesses.
Prof. Adrian Taylor - Exercise Psychologist, Exeter University:
We can talk about bio-physical processes or psychosocial processes....It's useful to look at psycho-social processes. We call it the 'three C's' in terms of how people feel in terms of their competence, how much control they have over their behaviour and how it impacts on their health and, also, how much companionship and relatedness that they have with other people. Those three things seem to be quite important for mental health. If we feel competent about what we do, we tend to feel better about ourselves and have better mental health. If we feel in control, we can control what we do, we have choice, autonomy over what we do, and we feel that it actually makes a difference to how we are. And if we feel that other people are interested and we can relate to other people, then that also helps us feel better about ourselves, and our mental health tends to be better.
Dr Gaynor Parfitt - Exercise Psychologist, Exeter University:
Some people will not appreciate that and will not accept that they're physically becoming more in control in their lives, or that they're physically becoming fitter, potentially because of their other mental health problems. And so for them, it might not work from a mastery perspective as successfully. But that doesn't mean to say that the other neuro-psychological changes aren't occurring.
Prof. Adrian Taylor - Exercise Psychologist, Exeter University:
People have been interested in the link between physical activity and mental health through bio-physical processes. Bio-physical processes could include several things, one that there is a temperature change, as you exercise you become warmer, which has been associated with feeling better. So those might be some temporary changes. But in terms of longer term changes through a prolonged period of activity, what might some of the changes be? One of them might be reductions in muscle tension, so you feel less aroused and less stressed, if you like, so there are physical changes in muscle relaxation.
Dr Gaynor Parfitt - Exercise Psychologist, Exeter University:
The neuro-transmitter explanations and the endorphin explanations and the thermagenic, which is that muscle-warming, muscle relaxation, they have problems in that as soon as I start to exercise there's more oxygen circulating, that triggers endorphins and neuro-transmitters and relaxes muscles, so all of the systems are being activated and, therefore, to be able to say it's this one that's having the effect is unlikely to occur. And so we now talk much more about having a synergy, having a combination of those mechanisms to actually explain why it works.
Prof. Adrian Taylor - Exercise Psychologist, Exeter University:
Other ones might include changes in the way the brain functions. Increasingly, people are interested in development of Alzheimer's and dementia in older people, and whether physical activity influences that through some kind of regeneration of brain tissue associated with cognitive functioning. So there is some evidence that exercise may influence how we process information, which is related to changes in the brain. Other people often talk about reductions in depression related to endorphins. Endorphins are quite complicated molecules, it may not be quite as simple as simply increasing endorphins, there might be other things such as dopamine, which is more important and linked to mood states and reduction in depression. So several ways, several bio-physical ways in which exercise might improve mental health.
End transcript: Physical activity and mental health: why does it work?
Physical activity and mental health: why does it work?
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

How do your explanations compare with those outlined in the extracts you have read or listened to? You may wish to use the Comments section below to share your thoughts about which explanations seem most plausible to you, and comment on other postings from members of your group.


There is no one theory or hypothesis that has been universally accepted to explain the link between exercise and mental health. Instead, several different hypotheses have been proposed. These can be split into two categories: (1) physical or bio-physical and (2) psychological or psychosocial.

Inga Spence/Alamy
Figure 1 Exercise can make us feel better and improve our mood

It has been shown that exercise has a positive effect on mental health, but in practice it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons why. This may be because a combination of factors is leading to improvements in mental health, rather than one factor alone. Also, because people differ greatly, explanations for improvements to mental health may vary according to the person concerned.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371