How Exercise & Sleep Supports Mental Health

By Allison Smith, Guest Blogger, Certified Personal Trainer and Yoga Enthusiast

Depression runs in my family. Both my mothers’ parents took their own lives when she was a teen, and died herself by suicide recently. As difficult as it was, I was motivated more than ever to help others in pain. And so I was honoured when Leslie asked me to speak to her group Professionals Working Well about the importance of exercise and sleep for our mental health.

Like my mother, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I’m not sure if this was a result of having undiagnosed ADHD and therefore always being in trouble – a BAD GIRL – or if it would have struck anyway. Home life was chaotic, tense, and often violent. I developed a food addiction to numb myself and got fat, which didn’t help my self-esteem.  I was miserable – people made noises (MOO) and comments, and I received looks of disgust or the classic “You’d be so pretty if…”  I hated myself for being weak, fat, stupid and ugly, and my body hurt. I lost the weight on an extreme diet in my early twenties, but continued to yo-yo for many years.

I had my first crisis in my late 20’s, after my doctor prescribed Zyban (an SSRI) to help me quit smoking. Within weeks I was back in her office, sobbing, after 5 days of not moving off the couch, even to bathe.

With the help of medication and some counseling, I came out of it. But a few years later, it got bad again. VERY bad. I decided to starve myself and lost 20 pounds in a month. As I came out of this crisis and began to gain weight again, I realized I needed to get some exercise. I joined the fitness room at my local community center, and one day I realized I really enjoyed working out. It made me feel good while I was doing it, and it made me feel good afterwards. The results were also pretty dramatic after a few years.

What started out as vanity saved my sanity!

Those good feelings I got while working out started to pervade the rest of my life. I was less angry, more energetic, and actually happy most of the time. Or at least not miserable and hopeless. Exercise is my natural anti-depressant.

I became a personal trainer because I wanted to help people. I wanted everyone to feel this good. As I studied, I learned that it wasn’t a fluke, my feeling better.  Any moderately intense exercise stimulates the pituitary gland to secrete endorphins, the so-called runner’s high. Exercise also brings a person into the present, focuses energy, creates new neural pathways and maintains and regenerates nerve cells. Exercise helps prevent and treat dementia and Alzheimer’s, and prevents cognitive decline in those over 65. It can help with normalizing sleep as well, which improves every other aspect of life.

 “For the nearly one-third of mental health patients

who do not respond to medication,

exercise is a viable option.” 

For the nearly one-third of mental health patients who do not respond to medication, exercise is a viable option. It can be something as simple as walking, biking or swimming. Cardiovascular exercise – which is anything that raises the heart rate – increases insulin sensitivity, and decreases blood pressure, resting heart rate and cholesterol. It also improves learning and memory. Yoga, however, is the winner when it comes to calming a hyperactive mind. It increases GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid) levels, which improves mood and decreases anxiety. Weight lifting, besides the physical benefits (stronger muscles and bones), also positively impacts the response inhibition process (less likely to blurt out inappropriate thoughts). When I work out with weights, I take out any anger or frustration on the iron instead of myself and the world around me. I find it very cathartic.

Exercising is not an option!Exercise&Mood badge

Regardless of the activity, exercising is not an option. Everyone must do it. Our bodies are made for work, and without it, we see myriad physical problems like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes…I could go on for hours. One of the most common excuses I hear is lack of time. I don’t buy this, because a person who exercises is 20% more productive throughout the day. I am not extraordinary. All you have to do is do it. And when you do, you are taking an active role in managing your condition, which can improve self-esteem.

Sleep goes hand-in-hand with exercise when it comes to mental health.

For one thing, your muscles need this time to recover from all that exercise you’re doing. In fact, sleep is required to reset all of the body’s functions, and adults need 6.5-9 hours a night. Depression/medication can cause a person to sleep far more than that, which can be problematic. Increased risk for diabetes, obesity, headaches, back pain, heart disease and cancer. Setting a regular routine of going to bed at the same time every night and waking to an alarm at the same time every day can help establish healthier sleep patterns.

Sleep hygiene is important, especially for those who have trouble sleeping enough. There are many kinds of insomnia (early-waking, trouble falling asleep, restless sleep) and many causes. Depression and anxiety are big ones. Some medications can cause restlessness instead of drowsiness.

If you have ever lost a significant amount of sleep for any length of time, you come to realize how necessary it is for optimal functioning. Insufficient sleep can worsen symptoms of depression, anxiety, and ADHD.

Good sleep hygiene begins before bedtime.  Get outside into daylight and try to get some exercise more than three hours before bedtime.  Strenuous activity before bed can make it difficult to fall asleep, but gentle stretching, a relaxing stroll, or yoga, are all fine and may even help bring sleep on.

Try to wake up and go to bed at the same time every day. Your body likes routine, so give it one!  A soothing bath, reading, meditation, and listening to calming music are good evening activities to help wind down.

The bedroom should be for sleep and sex only.  It should be completely dark and cool for sleeping.


  • Caffeine – it can take 24 hours to metabolize a cup of coffee, so if you’re sensitive, try cutting down or avoiding caffeine altogether.
  • Any liquids within two hours of bedtime.
  • Nicotine – though smokers often say a cigarette relaxes them, it is a stimulant.
  • Bright lights – especially those emitted by computer screens as they fool the brain into thinking it is daytime.
  • Late, heavy meals – if the body is in digestion mode, sleep can be disrupted.  Try not to eat a full meal less than 2 hours before bedtime.
  • Alcohol – while it may help sleep come on, it encourages a shallower sleep state and causes dehydration, which can encourage waking in the night.

I love the FSTEP concept, and through participating in Leslie’s group, I realized it’s a neat way of packaging the responsibilities we must assume in managing our conditions. They are tools we need to have in our pocket for when things go wrong. The mistake so many of us make is thinking we are better and slacking off on maintaining our tool kit, only to realize later that we are not better and our tools have gotten rusty.


Mental illness is not a choice. We all wish we could be ‘normal’. But we can choose how to manage (or not) our illness, and with vigilance, we can live fulfilled lives.

No one has to be perfect all the time (even though we all try). But we do need to keep on top of Food, Sleep, Treatment, Exercise, and Perspective so that when a crisis hits, we CAN handle it.

 Image credit: Flickr/Chris Haddleton

About the author: Allisonsmith headshot

Allison Smith, Personal Trainer

Allison’s passion for fitness began after a mental health crisis, when she learned the value of workouts for stress relief and centering. She is a Certified Personal Trainer and yoga enthusiast and competed for four years in women’s body-building. Allison also holds a degree in Journalism and writes about fitness. You can connect with her at:

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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