Exercise Helps Improve Mental Health

February 15, 2021

Exercise does your body and your brain good.

Of course, this isn’t news. Research has long shown the benefits of exercising for our physical and mental health.

This doesn’t stop during a global pandemic.

As COVID-19 keeps most people home or at least limits interaction with others, many find themselves mostly confined to home for class, work and even entertainment. But remember, being safe does not mean isolating completely or giving up on good health practices.

The pandemic does present challenges when it comes to exercising and fitness. With gyms and other health and fitness facilities closed or greatly changed with limited numbers of users for much of 2020, fitness classes have moved to ZOOM and other online formats and people have had to get creative with their own spaces and time.

Recreational Sports and Fitness Services (RSFS) in Michigan State University’s Student Affairs and Services, has also had to change the way it provides fitness opportunities to the MSU community. Instead of in-person fitness classes, club sports and a full schedule of opportunities, RSFS has had to close facilities and move fitness classes to ZOOM, as well.

This also brings challenges for those who not only use exercise and physical activity as a way to be physically healthy, but also as their routine for mental health. A little relief came to the Spartan community with RSFS’ recent reopening of IM West to those working out using the facility’s equipment and swimmers using the pool individually and under approved guidelines.

Jiawei Wang, who earned his undergraduate degree in Supply Chain Management from MSU in May 2020 and is currently in the Master’s in Marketing Research program, has used IM West throughout his time at MSU and is happy to be able to work out there again. Using the equipment four to five times a week, Wang said having this part of his routine back is very important.

“I use this time to de-stress from studying and classes,” he said, explaining he started working out at the facility during his freshman year and it had become part of his routine. “It (exercise) increases my ability to stay focused and helps give me a new place to go during the day, and then I can go back home and work again.”

Therapists at MSU’s Counseling & Psychiatric Services (CAPS) agree there is a direct positive impact from exercising and mental health. “In short, there are direct physiological effects, including increased energy and stamina, increased alertness, releasing endorphins, which promote positive feelings, as well as pain reduction and regulating sleep. Other direct effects on one’s mental health include a sense of community with others working out, a sense of accomplishment and distraction,” said Dr. Olivia Scott, staff psychologist at CAPS.

In addition, working out can help decrease anxiety and depression, as well as improve self-esteem and cognitive functioning, as shown in “Exercise for Mental Health” published in 2006 in the Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry by Ashish Sharma, M.D., Vishal Madaan, M.D., and Frederick D. Petty, M.D., Ph.D.

Exercise also helps people better deal with stress, especially when stress becomes a heavy burden and adversely affects mental health. “Balance, self-regulation, and one’s appraisal of their resources for managing stress are key factors in stress management. Exercise can serve as an important resource in achieving balance and self-regulation,” said Dr. Jimmy Bruce, staff psychologist at CAPS.

In fact, regular aerobic activity actually relaxes your body so that it can handle more stress before a more significant stress response is triggered, according to John J. Ratey’s book, Spark. Ratey states, “control is key, and active versus passive coping is important. The manner in which you cope with stress can change not only how you feel, but it can also transform your brain.”

Aerobic exercise that involves cardiovascular conditioning, such as swimming, jogging, walking, cycling, gardening and dancing, is most impactful.

Alyssa Guadagni, a senior who graduated in December 2020 with a double major in kinesiology and dietetics, has both used and worked at IM West for four years where she was a student supervisor. “Working out is a lifesaver for me. I could not manage my stress without physical activity,” she said. The gym is a place I can go to for just an hour, or however long I have for the day, to just completely clear my mind, destress.

“I turn my phone off; I turn my notifications off; I don’t have to worry about anything. It’s just kind of my me time, my time for selfcare, and just to rejuvenate, and I feel 10-times better after a workout and I am way more productive.”

Learn more about RSFS programs, classes and facilities at recsports.msu.edu, and view these videos:

Alyssa Guadagni

Jiawei Wang

Christine Trinidad

The Importance of Exercise

MSU Mental Health Support

Michigan State University Counseling & Psychiatric Services (CAPS) experienced an increase in contact with students during fall semester as students were able to begin the process of connecting with CAPS online. In the past, students dropped into the center to get connected, but since COVID-19 caused most of MSU classes to transition to a remote learning environment and students were not on campus, CAPS provided students the ability to connect remotely.

“While students reach out for a variety of reasons, many began experiencing symptoms or noticed an exacerbation of symptoms due to COVID-19, the rise in publicized incidents of police brutality, and election stress,” said Dr. Scott.

Many MSU students seeking help talk about a lack of motivation, difficulty with online learning, isolation and hopelessness. The CAPS team wants students to know they are available.

Anyone who would like to speak with a therapist from CAPS may complete the Qualtrics form on the CAPS website at caps.msu.edu.

  • CAPS can assist students or connect them with services that are a better fit, if needed.
  • CAPS offers a 24/7 crisis line at (517) 355-8270; “1” to speak with a therapist immediately.
  • The CAPS Virtual Care Kit can be found at msu.edu/_assets/pdfs/MSU_CAPS_virtual_care_kit.pdf

If someone you know may be struggling, it’s important to let them know that you care, then consider asking what they need. “Sometimes we can jump to problem-solving or advice giving, when people want empathy or a listening ear,” said Dr. Scott.

“You could also suggest an activity that may be mutually beneficial – accountability and companionship can go a long way,” added Dr. Scott. This could be anything from taking a weekly virtual exercise video/class online at the same time, to scheduling a time to do your own journaling and share what you wrote to starting a virtual book club.

Another important suggestion is to normalize seeking help and, when necessary, suggesting your friend seek help from a professional.

If you are worried that someone is a danger to themselves or others, it is important to take them to the nearest Emergency Room or call 911. You can also:

  • Call the CAPS crisis line (517) 355-8270, then press “1,” if you need immediate support from a therapist
  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255)


  • MSU CAPS – msu.edu
  • The Nutrition Program at MSU (offers general information and nutrition counseling) – msu.edu/nutrition/
  • Crisis Text Line – text HOME to 741741 for mental health crisis support
  • The Steve Fund textline for young people of color – text STEVE to 741741
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – (800) 273-8255
  • Trevor Project – crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ young people under 25 – (866) 488-7386, org
  • LGBT National Hotline – (888) 843-4564, org/national-hotline

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