Exercise and Mental Health: How Movement Boosts Your Mood

Learn how exercise and mental health are connected, and get concrete tips for incorporating more movement into your routine.

Published Date: Apr 30, 2024

Exercise and Mental Health: How Movement Boosts Your Mood

Learn how exercise and mental health are connected, and get concrete tips for incorporating more movement into your routine.

Published Date: Apr 30, 2024

Exercise and Mental Health: How Movement Boosts Your Mood

Learn how exercise and mental health are connected, and get concrete tips for incorporating more movement into your routine.

Published Date: Apr 30, 2024

Exercise and Mental Health: How Movement Boosts Your Mood

Learn how exercise and mental health are connected, and get concrete tips for incorporating more movement into your routine.

Published Date: Apr 30, 2024
Table of Contents

If there’s one thing we Hinge Health physical therapists know, it’s that exercise is good for your health, period. From reducing the risk of chronic diseases to improving musculoskeletal pain and boosting overall longevity, the benefits of regular exercise on physical health are widely talked about. But the benefits of exercise on mental health can be just as important. 

“If we’re looking at movement as medicine, movement is your multivitamin. You get multiple benefits from it,” says Samantha Stewart, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. Exercise releases endorphins, which are natural mood lifters that help with stress, anxiety, and depression. Research shows that regular exercise is linked to better sleep, cognitive function, and self-esteem, all of which are important for good mental health. It helps with hormone regulation, which affects mental health too. There’s also a mood-boosting social aspect to exercise, whether you’re engaging in a group fitness class or simply getting out of the house. 

That said, exercising can be challenging when you have a mental health condition. Depression, anxiety, PTSD, or other issues can make it difficult to find the energy and motivation to be active. Fear of judgment, low self-esteem, or negative body image can create barriers to both exercise and mental health. And managing chronic pain can pose challenges for your mind and body. 

But even small amounts of physical activity can have profound benefits on mental health. Finding the right type and intensity of exercise, and having social support, is key. Programs like Hinge Health — which gives you access to a licensed physical therapist and health coach free of charge to you — can offer that. 

Read on to learn more about how exercise and mental health connect, and get tips from physical therapists on ways to move more so you can feel your best. 

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Our Hinge Health Experts

Samantha Stewart, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Stewart is a Hinge Health physical therapist with over 8 years of experience. She is certified in myofascial trigger point therapy.
Alec Martinez, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Martinez is a Hinge Health Physical Therapist with special interests in the crossover of orthopedic and neurological injuries and rehab.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Maureen Lu, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Lu is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist with over 17 years of clinical experience.

Physical Health and Mental Health: What’s the Connection? 

You may think of your physical health as separate from your mental health. In reality, the two are closely connected. (If you’ve ever been nervous and felt butterflies in your stomach, or a racing heart, you know this.) This connection is particularly important for musculoskeletal conditions. 

People living with chronic muscle or joint pain are five times more likely to also experience anxiety and depression than those without pain. Chronic pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia or arthritis, can lead to feelings of frustration and hopelessness, which impact mental health. 

“If you have pain, it alters everything — your mood, sleep, how you engage with other people,” says Dr. Stewart. That can make it more challenging to be active, which further affects muscle and joint pain. 

“Plus, we know that stress elevates musculoskeletal pain,” says Alec Martinez, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. “When your body is under a lot of mental load, your body also becomes more sensitive to pain.” So prolonged stress can lead to muscle tension and tightness, contributing to conditions like tension headaches, neck pain, and back pain

Strategies that promote well-being for your mind and body can play a vital role in improving both mental and musculoskeletal health. This includes stress management techniques, social support, and, most importantly, movement. 

8 Benefits of Exercise on Mental Health

While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for mental or physical health, research shows that movement is one of the most important things for your mind and body. Here are some of the benefits of exercise on mental health. 

  1. Stress reduction. Stress is a part of life and there’s no way to avoid it altogether. But physical activity serves as a natural stress reliever. It regulates levels of cortisol, the body's primary stress hormone, and helps train your body to be more resilient to stressful and difficult life events.

  2. Anxiety management. Anxiety affects everyone differently, but exercise can help. Studies have found that just one bout of exercise can reduce anxiety. Higher-intensity activity may offer greater anxiety-reducing benefits. Engaging in a regular exercise routine can serve as a healthy coping mechanism for managing symptoms of anxiety, providing a constructive outlet for pent-up energy and tension.

  3. Mood enhancement. “Any movement that causes an elevation in heart rate releases endorphins,” says Dr. Martinez. These are often referred to as "feel-good hormones" and can alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression. This is true not just for traditional cardio exercise, like biking and running, but even gentler forms of movement, like yoga and tai chi.

  4. Improved sleep quality. Studies show a bidirectional relationship between exercise and sleep. Exercise tires you out, which increases your drive to sleep. And the more well-rested you are, the more energy you have to maintain an exercise routine. (Win-win.) Exercise is also shown to increase levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that helps regulate sleep. And because stress and worries tend to keep people up at night, the reduction in stress that exercise provides promotes better sleep. 

  5. Enhanced cognitive function. Physical activity stimulates the brain, improving cognitive functions such as memory, concentration, and overall mental clarity. Have you ever experienced a time when movement — like taking a short walk during the workday — helped to clear your head? This isn’t a coincidence. One bout of movement can improve mental clarity and concentration. A study from Frontiers in Neuroscience found that just taking the stairs instead of the elevator boosted creativity in participants. 

  6. Boosted self-esteem. Being able to move, and move in a way that is meaningful to you, can significantly boost self-esteem, leading to a more positive outlook and improved mental health. A study from the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness found that participants who exercised at least two days per week had higher levels of self-efficacy, self-esteem, and body awareness than those who were sedentary. “A lot of our identity is based on how we move,” explains Dr. Martinez. “If you were a dancer in the past — even if it’s been years since you danced — you may still identify as a dancer. Not being able to do that activity affects your identity as a whole.”

  7. Social connection. Participating in group exercise classes or active hobbies with friends fosters social interaction. This promotes a sense of belonging and community and helps you feel less lonely. 

  8. Depression management. Research demonstrates that regular physical activity can alleviate symptoms of depression and improve overall mood. According to a BMJ review, walking, jogging, yoga, and strength training can be particularly effective at managing depression, particularly when they are higher intensity. 

A Word on Depression and Exercise

Depression is quite common. Roughly 30% of U.S. adults have been diagnosed with it at some point, and it’s even more common among those with chronic pain. Just as there is a relationship between pain and mental health, there is a relationship between exercise and mental health, too. Those who are depressed tend to be less active than non-depressed individuals. And inactivity can further contribute to depression.

Exercising with depression is not easy, and there’s a physiological reason for this. Depression is associated with lower levels of dopamine and serotonin, chemicals in the body that influence mood. Dopamine is released before and during activities we enjoy, and it reinforces behavior, encouraging you to seek out activities that cause a dopamine release. But low dopamine may mean you don’t enjoy activities as much, so activities that require more effort — like exercise — become even more challenging, even if it’s something you used to look forward to. Plus low levels of serotonin can cause anxiety around exercise. 

While it can seem impossible at times to exercise while struggling with depression, there are steps you can take to break this cycle of events. “Movement changes your chemical makeup,” explains Dr. Stewart, which influences your mental health. Increasing physical activity — even a few minutes per day — can help reduce symptoms of depression and even prevent clinical depression.

Tips for Exercising for Mental Health

Treating mental health conditions often requires a combination of approaches, such as therapy and medication. Since exercise and mental health go hand in hand, an exercise routine is usually an important part of any treatment plan. Exercising to help take care of your mental health can feel daunting at times. But with the right approach and support, you can reap the bounty of mental health benefits that come with more movement. Here are some PT-approved best practices to help you get started. 

Start With Exercise Therapy

Exercise therapy is a type of physical activity that’s tailored to your unique needs, with a goal of reducing pain and improving function. It goes beyond the idea that exercise is just a fitness regimen and instead focuses on addressing specific health concerns, reducing muscle and joint pain, and enhancing overall well-being. A physical therapist can provide you with an exercise therapy plan. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

Go Slow and Steady

Begin with manageable goals that you feel comfortable with and gradually increase the intensity and duration of your workouts, advises Dr. Stewart. That helps you gain confidence and momentum. “You just have to dip your toes in the water, and you’ll naturally start to notice changes in your body, both physically and mentally. Then it will be easier to make space for exercise in your life,” Dr. Stewart adds. 

Find Activities You Enjoy

Experiment with different forms of exercise — whether it's jogging, yoga, swimming, or dancing — until you discover activities that resonate with you. “The best exercise is the one you’ll go back to,” says Dr. Martinez. “Choose activities because you’re excited about them. Find things that make you want to get up.” This increases the likelihood of sticking with them long term.

Set Realistic Expectations

Recognize that progress takes time and be patient with yourself. “Any amount of activity is good, even if it’s just getting up and walking around your home for a few minutes,” says Dr. Stewart. Avoid comparing your journey to others' and focus on your own growth and achievements. Celebrate small victories along the way to stay motivated and encouraged.

Prioritize Your Mental Well-Being

Listen to your body and honor your mental health needs. If you're feeling overwhelmed or fatigued, take a rest day or engage in gentler forms of exercise, such as stretching or mindfulness practices. Remember: Every little bit counts. 

Seek Support and Accountability

Surround yourself with a supportive network of friends, family, or fitness buddies who can encourage and motivate you. “A lot of people find it easier to go to a workout class if they have friends that are going to be there,” says Dr. Martinez. If you are a Hinge Health member, lean on your physical therapist and health coach for accountability and guidance. (That’s what they’re there for, after all!) If you feel support from a mental health professional would be beneficial for you, contact your doctor or insurance provider to see what is available to you.

PT Tip: A Little Goes a Long Way 

The thought of exercising more (or at all) can feel overwhelming, especially when you’re struggling with mental health. “You don’t have to overhaul your life to get the benefits of exercise,” says Dr. Stewart. “It doesn’t have to be a huge commitment. A lot of times, once you get started and get over the initial hump, exercise starts to have a noticeable impact on your mental health, and that makes you want to do more of it.” 

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you. 

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. 

Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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