Lack of appropriate exercise

Getting the appropriate amount of exercise is essential for our mental health.

A sedentary lifestyle and insufficient exercise can lead to:

Each person has their own physical needs. An appropriate level of exercise is one that’s adapted to our specific needs and our state of health and energy.

Exercise and mental health

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Hassmen, P., Koivula, N., Uutela, A. (2000). ‘Physical exercise and psychological well-being: a population study in Finland.’ [online] Prev. Med., 30(1), pp. 17-25. Available at: [accessed 01 Oct. 2018].

Research has shown a clear correlation between lack of exercise and poor mental health.Halliwell, E., Main, L., Richardson, C. (2007). ‘The fundamental facts’. [online] London: Mental Health Foundation, p.56. Available at: [accessed 20 Aug. 2017].

Exercise has many benefits for mental health, and they are accessible to most people:

  • Almost anyone can do some sort of exercise, whatever their physical, mental, or socio-economic circumstances
  • Exercise is time-efficient: it’s effective even if you only take 20–30 minutes, three times a week
  • Exercise is a keystone habit: it usually leads to other good habits, such as better sleep and better nutrition

But if we don’t exercise, our mental health can be affected in a range of ways. A selection of these are listed below.

When we exercise, we can set ourselves achievable goals. As we succeed, and become more flexible, stronger, and slimmer, we can gain in self-confidence. If we don’t exercise, we may feel unconfident and bad about our self-image.

Exercise has been shown to improve our BMI (body mass index), and so reduce the risk of obesity and its accompanying feelings of shame.

Research has shown that exercise can improve our cognitive function.Holland, J. (2015). Moody Bitches. New York, NY: Penguin, p. 246.Gottfried, S. (2013). The Hormone Cure. New York, NY: Scribner, p.63.Hyman, M. (2009). The UltraMind Solution. New York, NY: Scribner, p.314.

  • Exercise helps to increase neurogenesis, the regeneration of brain cells
  • When we exercise, BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) levels in the brain also increase
    • BDNF is a chemical that encourages neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to grow and restructure itself
    • BDNF is crucial for the parts of the brain associated with learning, long-term memory, and higher thinking
    • Higher levels of BDNF are also correlated with lower levels of anxiety and depression
    • Low levels of BDNF are associated with cognitive decline, including Huntington’s, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. Liou, S. (2010). Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). [online] HOPES: Huntington’s Outreach Project for Education, at Stanford. Available at: [accessed 19 Nov. 2018].

If we don’t do regular exercise, and don’t increase our BDNF levels, we may be at greater risk of cognitive decline and mood disorders.

Because exercise improves our blood and lymph circulation, it boosts our body’s’ immunity and detoxification.

This is necessary for balancing our hormones and neurotransmitters, and safeguarding our mental health.Greenblatt, J. (2016). Breakthrough Depression Solution. 2nd ed. Forest Lake, MN: Sunrise River Press, pp.159–173.Moylan, S., Eyre, H., Maes, M., Baune, B., Jacka, F., Berk, M. (2013). ‘Exercising the worry away: how inflammation, oxidative and nitrogen stress mediates the beneficial effect of physical activity on anxiety disorder symptoms and behaviours’. [online] Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 37(4), pp. 573–584. Available at: [accessed 20 Aug. 2017].

Exercise can also help boost our metabolism for weight loss, which is important as being overweight can contribute to biochemical issues, such as inflammation, hormonal and neurotransmitter imbalances, and gut issues.Holland, J. (2015). Moody Bitches. New York, NY: Penguin, p.246.

Exercise is important for our digestion and absorption, as well as our blood sugar balance:Bongiorno, D. (2015). ‘The anxiety summit: serotonin and anxiety, happiness, digestion and your hormones’. [online] Every Woman Over 29 Blog. Available at: [accessed 21 Aug. 2017].

  • Imbalances in our blood sugar levels can contribute to insulin resistance, which may lead to diabetes
  • Poor circulation in our gut has a negative effect on our digestion and metabolism, which can stop our bodies from absorbing nutrients, and lower the production of various neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, which regulates our moods and anxiety

Exercise can trigger changes in our bodies at the biochemical level, improving our moods and reducing our levels of stress and anxiety.

Neurotransmitter levels

Exercising is key to the production of neurotransmitters that affect our mental health. For example, regular exercise can:Holland, J. (2015). Moody Bitches. New York, NY: Penguin, p.246.Talbott, S. (2007). The Cortisol Connection. Alameda, CA: Hunter House, p.228, p.251.Lake, J. (2009). Integrative Mental Health Care. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., p.105.Talbott, S. (2007). The Cortisol Connection. Alameda, CA: Hunter House, p.144.Hyman, M. (2009). The UltraMind Solution. New York, NY: Scribner, p.314. 

  • Increase the body’s production of endorphins (‘feel-good’ chemicals) as well as dopamine and serotonin (‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters)
  • Increase the level of tryptophan in the brain, which (if done in the morning) can raise serotonin levels for the rest of the day
  • Release the same amount of positive chemicals in our body as conventional antidepressants do
    • Doing thirty minutes of exercise per day, three to four days per week, over four months, has been shown to be as effective as antidepressants (without the side-effects)
    • Research shows it can be more effective against depression than Prozac, and it can also enhance the effectiveness of SSRIs

If we avoid exercise, we risk missing out on all of these benefits, and having low levels of these positive neurotransmitters, which can lead to symptoms of depression, stress, and anxiety.

Hormone levels

Exercise can also help stabilise hormone levels, including stress hormones, sex hormones, and thyroid hormones. If we don’t exercise, we may be at greater risk of:Talbott, S. (2007). The Cortisol Connection. Alameda, CA: Hunter House, p.91, p.145.Amen, D. (2013). Unleash The Power Of The Female Brain. New York, NY: Harmony Books, p.108., Gluck, M.,Edgson, V. (2010). It Must Be My Hormones. Camberwell: Penguin Group, p.166.Khadka, R., Paudel, B., Majhi, S., Shrestha, N., Regmi, M., Chhetri, S., Das, A., Sharma, D., Gautam, V., Karki, P. (2013). ‘Yogic practices can increase estrogen and progesterone levels and heart rate variability in peri-menopausal women’. 37th Congress of IUPS. [online] Birmingham, UK: Proceedings of The Physiological Society. Available at: [accessed 20 Aug. 2017].Harinath, K., Malhotra, A., Pal, K., Prasad, R., Kumar, R., Kain, T., Rai, L., Sawhney, R. (2004). ‘Effects of Hatha yoga and Omkar meditation on cardiorespiratory performance, psychologic profile, and melatonin secretion’. [online] Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 10(2), pp.261–268. Available at: [accessed 21 Aug. 17].

  • Less stable levels of cortisol (a key stress hormone)
  • A lack of protection against age-related cortisol increase, which can lead to acute stress becoming chronic
  • Lower levels of testosterone, which can negatively affect our mood, confidence, assertiveness, feeling of control, motivation, and energy levels

High levels of inflammation have been linked to mental health issues. There is a range of possible contributors to inflammation:Endrighi, R., Steptoe, A., Hamer, M. (2015). ‘The effect of experimentally induced sedentariness on mood and psychobiological responses to mental stress’. [online] The British Journal of Psychiatry. Available at: [accessed 20 Aug. 2017].Moylan, S., Eyre, H., Maes, M., Baune, B., Jacka, F., Berk, M. (2013). ‘Exercising the worry away: how inflammation, oxidative and nitrogen stress mediates the beneficial effect of physical activity on anxiety disorder symptoms and behaviours’. [online] Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 37(4), pp.573–584. Available at: [accessed 20 Aug. 2017].

  • Sedentary behaviour, characterised by low-energy activity such as watching TV, using computers, and so on, may contribute to our low moods and depression by increasing inflammation
  • In the long term, exercise has been shown to build our protection against diseases related to low-grade inflammation

Exercise can also give us an opportunity to socialise with like-minded exercisers, who can motivate us and help us out of a low mood. If we don’t have this opportunity, we may feel bored or apathetic, and find it harder to lift our more negative moods.

Too much exercise and mental health

Doing too much exercise isn’t as common as doing too little — the rate of obesity is increasing in most major countries, and it isn’t declining in any.Ng, M. et al. (2013). ‘Global, regional, and national prevalence of overweight and obesity in children and adults during 1980–2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study’. The Lancet, 384(9945), pp.766–781.

But for those who do exercise regularly, there’s a risk that they can take it too far.

By ‘too much’, we mean exercise that’s too intense, rather than too often. In an ideal world, everyone would get some exercise every day; what’s important is that its intensity is adapted to our individual state of health, energy, and needs.

Overly intense exercise, just like a lack of exercise, can lead to:

  • Irritability
  • Exhaustion
  • Poor memory
  • Poor concentration and attention
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Our exercise may be poorly adapted to our current physical state, and/or too intense, if we have the following symptoms within forty-eight hours of exercising:

  • Muscle aches and fatigue
  • Injuries
  • Exhaustion
  • Sleep issues
  • Poor memory
  • Poor concentration and attention
  • Cold hands and feet

Over-exercising can add to our allostatic load, and/or can cause imbalances in our stress hormones.

Allostatic load

Allostatic load is the chronic wear-and-tear on our bodies.

  • A high allostatic load taxes our metabolic reserves
  • Strong metabolic reserves enable us to withstand stress
  • So, if our metabolic reserves are depleted through a chronically high allostatic load, we will have a reduced stress tolerance
  • High-intensity exercise can add too much to our allostatic load

Whether exercise is helpful for our mental health or not can therefore depend on our allostatic load. It’s essential to adapt our exercise to both our allostatic load and our metabolic reserves.

Stress hormone imbalance

Just as the right amount of exercise can help balance our stress hormones, too much of it can throw them off balance.

Exercising too intensely (e.g. ultra-marathon running) can increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol, so that they remain high long after exercise. The possible effects include:Talbott, S. (2007). The Cortisol Connection. Alameda, CA: Hunter House, p.24, pp. 91–92, p.145.Talbott, S. (2007). The Cortisol Connection. Alameda, CA: Hunter House, pp.251–252.Talbott, S. (2007). The Cortisol Connection. Alameda, CA: Hunter House, p.24, p.92.

  • A negative impact on hormonal balance and the nervous system, which can translate into mental health issues such as anxiety, insomnia, and depression
  • An increase in the body’s cortisol sensitivity

Research on overtrained athletes, who have high cortisol due to excessive exercise, shows that they can also suffer from:

  • Fatigue
  • Depressed mood
  • Poor mental performance
  • Poor physical performance

If we are under intense stress, or have insomnia, we should avoid over-exercising. We risk overloading our bodies with cortisol and straining our adrenal glands further, which may make our mental health issues worse.