COVID-19 is a physical illness. However, the isolation, uncertainty and fear that come with a pandemic can also cause mental distress. The Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health says, a year into the pandemic, one in five Canadians are:  

  • anxious,  
  • depressed and  
  • lonely.  

If you’re one of those Canadians in distress, there’s some good news. The evidence is mounting that physical exercise can treat clinical anxiety disorders as well as more generalized anxiety. Exercise is also helpful if you have mild-to-moderate depression.

The Canadian mental health-care system was already stretched thin before the pandemic turned up the dial. So, this is good news as well for doctors looking for treatment alternatives to prescription medication. Many people are also interested in side effect-free, self-help tools.

How does exercise help with anxiety and depression? 

There are many mysteries yet to solve. But experts believe exercise helps ease anxiety and depression by: 

  • releasing feel-good brain chemicals (neurotransmitters and endorphins), 
  • reducing immune system chemicals that can worsen depression, and 
  • increasing body temperature, which can provide a calming effect.  

Scientists have been studying this for a while. Back in 2006, an often-cited study appeared in the Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. It found that “exercise improves mental health by:  

  • reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and  
  • improving self-esteem and cognitive function.” 

In 2013, Canadian scientists George Mammen, MSc and Guy Faulkner, PhD, did a study titled  Physical Activity and the Prevention of Depression. In it, they suggest that even low levels of physical activity can help prevent depression. Even walking for brief periods each day helps.  

There’s more. Other studies indicate that people who exercise regularly tend to have higher self-esteem and increased confidence. The world-famous Mayo Clinic agrees. Exercise: 7 benefits of regular exercise suggests that exercise can help people relax and feel happier and better about themselves. 

Here’s what could be the most exciting news of all. Exercise gives you a new tool to use alone or along with other forms of treatment such as:  

  • medication, 
  • counselling,  
  • cognitive behavioural therapy and  
  • mindfulness.  

How can you exercise your way to better mental health? 

Do you think you’re experiencing anxiety and/or depression? Are you taking medication but want to consider new or additional treatment options? Then start with a visit to your doctor, and consider these tips: 

  • Decide what activities you enjoy most or would most like to try. When you enjoy something, you’re more likely to stick with it. 
  • Discuss your goals with your doctor and get their support. Will exercise be part of your treatment plan for anxiety or depression? Then talk about frequency, time, intensity and how best to monitor your progress. 
  • Establish realistic goals and make a plan to reach them.
  • Schedule time to exercise and hold yourself accountable. An exercise buddy can help you stay on track.  
  • Identify and understand what’s standing in your way or holding you back. For example, does putting on a swimsuit make you feel self-conscious and keep you from aquafit classes? Then find another kind of exercise – perhaps yoga, walking or biking. If the pandemic has shut down in-person group classes where you live, look into online sessions. 
  • Understand that everyone has setbacks from time to time. Be sure to reward your progress regularly. 

Despite the continuing pandemic, experts say outdoor activity with the right precautions isn’t just safe. It’s also beneficial. And as the weather warms up, it’s easier than ever to get outside and get active. So get out in your garden, hop on your bike, or put on your hiking shoes. And say hello to better mental health! 

How can you find professional help for mental health?  

Physical activity can certainly help with anxiety and depression. But you may still need more help.  

You can use Lumino Health to find a mental health-care provider in your area. Lumino’s provider search is available to everyone and offers a hub of health resources, including: 

  • a stress and anxiety explorer, and 
  • a library of mental health articles. 

Many health-care professionals now offer virtual appointments or e-therapy sessions.  

Read more: 


This article is meant to only provide general information. Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada does not provide legal, accounting, taxation, or other professional advice. Please seek advice from a qualified professional, including a thorough examination of your specific legal, accounting and tax situation.