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Exercise and mental health
Exercise and mental health

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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.

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

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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.