The Fitness Zone

Unveiling the Profound Impact of Cardiovascular Fitness, Strength Training and Exercising Outdoors on Mental Health

Aug 21, 2023 | by Steve Irwin

In an era where mental health is garnering increasing attention, finding effective strategies to improve well-being has become a top priority. While therapy and medication are crucial components of mental health treatment, one often overlooked and powerful tool is exercise. Engaging in regular physical activity not only enhances physical fitness but also has profound effects on mental well-being. Lets now delve into the significant impacts of cardiovascular (cardio) fitness, strength training and outdoor exercise on mental health.

Cardiovascular Exercise and Mental Health:

Cardiovascular exercise, characterised by activities that increase heart rate and breathing, such as running, swimming, and cycling, is widely recognized for its numerous physical health benefits. However, its impact on mental well-being should not be underestimated. The effects of cardio exercise on mental health are multi-faceted and can positively influence various aspects of emotional well-being.

Mood Enhancement: Engaging in cardio exercise triggers the release of endorphins, commonly referred to as the “feel-good” hormones. These chemicals interact with receptors in the brain, reducing stress, enhancing mood, and promoting an overall sense of well-being. Regular cardio exercise has been shown to alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress.[1]

Stress Reduction: Stress is a prevalent and potentially detrimental aspect of modern life. Fortunately, cardio exercise acts as a powerful stress reliever. Physical activity stimulates the production of neurohormones like norepinephrine, which help moderate the brain’s response to stress. Additionally, cardiovascular exercise increases the brain’s production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, known for its mood-regulating effects.

Cognitive Function: Cardio exercise has been shown to enhance cognitive function and improve mental clarity. Regular aerobic activities promote the growth of new neurons in the brain, particularly in regions responsible for memory and learning. Increased blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain during cardio exercise also support optimal brain function.

Strength Training and Mental Health:

Strength training, often associated with resistance exercises using weights or resistance bands, is commonly recommended for physical fitness and muscular development. However, the mental health benefits of strength training are equally remarkable. Incorporating strength training into your exercise routine can yield several positive effects on mental well-being.

Self-esteem Boost: Strength training helps develop physical strength, endurance, and a sense of accomplishment. Over time, as individuals observe progress in their strength and fitness levels, their self-esteem and body image improve. This positive self-perception can translate into enhanced mental well-being and overall confidence.[2]

Stress Relief: Similar to cardio exercise, strength training acts as a potent stress reliever. Intense physical exertion during resistance exercises can help release pent-up tension and frustration, leaving individuals feeling more relaxed and centred. Additionally, the discipline and focus required in strength training can provide a welcome respite from the stresses of daily life.

Depression Management: Strength training has been shown to be effective in managing symptoms of depression. Regular participation in resistance exercises can stimulate the release of endorphins, improving mood and reducing depressive symptoms. Moreover, the structured nature of strength training can instil a sense of routine and purpose, providing individuals with a positive focus and a sense of control.

Combining Cardio and Strength Training:

While both cardio and strength training offer distinct mental health benefits, combining these two forms of exercise can lead to even more significant improvements in overall well-being.

  1. Enhanced Cognitive Function: Research suggests that engaging in a combination of cardio and strength training may yield greater cognitive benefits than either type of exercise alone. The cardiovascular component improves blood flow to the brain, while strength training supports neuroplasticity, optimising brain function and cognitive abilities.
  1. Increased Energy Levels: Regular exercise, whether cardio or strength training, increases energy levels and combats feelings of fatigue and lethargy. The synergistic effect of combining these two forms of exercise maximises the release of endorphins and boosts energy levels, promoting an overall sense of vitality.
  1. Holistic Mental Well-being: By incorporating both cardio and strength training into a fitness routine, individuals can experience a holistic approach to mental well-being. Cardio exercises improve mood, reduce stress, and enhance cognitive function, while strength training fosters self-esteem, stress relief, and depression management. Together, they create a powerful combination that supports mental health on multiple levels.
Also Consider Utilising Outdoor Activities for Mental Health and Well-being:

The healing power of outdoor activities and the natural environment has long been recognized, and its positive impact on mental health and well-being is gaining increasing attention.

The Therapeutic Benefits of Outdoor Activities:

Stress Reduction: Spending time outdoors and engaging in activities such as hiking, walking, or gardening can significantly reduce stress levels. The natural environment has a calming effect on the mind, allowing individuals to disconnect from the demands of daily life and find peace amidst nature’s beauty. The rhythmic movements and sensory experiences offered by outdoor activities promote relaxation and help restore a sense of balance. [3]

Improved Mood and Mental Clarity: Outdoor activities stimulate the production of endorphins, the brain’s natural mood boosters. These activities provide a welcome change of scenery, encourage physical movement, and offer an opportunity for reflection and introspection. The combination of fresh air, sunlight, and physical exertion helps improve mental clarity, increase focus, and alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Enhanced Physical Health: Engaging in outdoor activities promotes physical well-being, which, in turn, positively impacts mental health. Activities like hiking, cycling, or swimming improve cardiovascular fitness, increase strength and endurance, and enhance overall vitality. The sense of achievement and accomplishment that comes with participating in outdoor activities can boost self-esteem and confidence, further improving mental well-being.

Nature’s Healing Influence:
  1. Restoring Mental Energy: Modern life often demands constant attention and engagement, leading to mental fatigue and decreased focus. Spending time in nature allows the mind to unwind and recharge. Natural environments provide a respite from the overstimulation of urban settings, offering a soothing and gentle sensory experience. Whether it’s a walk in the park or a weekend camping trip, immersing oneself in nature can rejuvenate mental energy and foster a sense of renewal.
  1. Connection and Perspective: Nature has a way of reminding us of our place in the larger scheme of things, bringing a sense of humility and awe. The grandeur of mountains, the vastness of oceans, and the intricacy of a forest can shift our perspective and help us realise that we are part of something much greater than ourselves. This connection to the natural world can bring comfort, inspire creativity, and foster a sense of purpose.
Practical Tips for Incorporating Outdoor Activities:
  1. Start Small: If you’re new to outdoor activities, start with short walks in local parks or nearby nature trails. Gradually increase the duration and intensity of your activities as you build stamina and confidence. Remember, even a few minutes spent in nature can have a positive impact on your mental well-being.
  1. Explore New Environments: Venture beyond familiar territories and explore different natural settings. Visit national parks, botanical gardens, or nearby lakes and rivers. Each environment offers unique experiences and can provide a refreshing change of scenery.
  1. Engage Your Senses: Take the time to fully immerse yourself in nature’s offerings. Listen to the sounds of birds chirping, the rustling of leaves, or the gentle flow of a stream. Feel the textures of leaves, flowers, or rocks. Breathe in the scent of fresh air and let it rejuvenate your senses.
  1. Mindfulness in Nature: Practice mindfulness during your outdoor activities. Pay attention to the present moment, observing the sights, sounds, and sensations around you. Let go of intrusive thoughts and fully engage with the natural environment. This mindfulness practice can enhance the therapeutic benefits of being in nature.
  1. Socialise Outdoors: Share the joys of outdoor activities with friends, family, or like-minded individuals. Organise group hikes, picnics, or outdoor yoga sessions. Connecting with others in nature not only deepens the experience but also provides opportunities for social support and connection, which are vital for mental well-being.

Exercise is a transformative tool that can positively impact mental health. The benefits of cardio and strength training extend far beyond physical fitness, encompassing mood enhancement, stress reduction, cognitive function improvement, self-esteem boost, and depression management. 

Engaging in outdoor activities and immersing ourselves in the natural environment offers numerous therapeutic benefits, including stress reduction, improved mood, enhanced mental clarity, and a sense of connection to something greater.

So, let us lace up our running shoes and pick up those weights, as we embark on a journey towards a healthier mind and body.

Please Note: The information provided in this article are the opinions and professional experience of the author and not all activities are recommended for the beginner or participants with underlying health conditions. Before following any advice or starting any fitness, health and wellbeing journey please consult with an Allied Health Professional and / or General Practitioner.


  1. Exercise and the Brain: The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise – Medically Reviewed By Daniel Bubnis, MS, NASM-CPT, NASE Level II-CSS
  2. Psychological Aspects of Resistance Training – From Principles And Practice Of Resistance Training By Michael Stone,Meg Stone & William Sands
  3. The Positive Effects Of Nature On Your Mental Wellbeing – By Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury, BA. Scientifically reviewed by Melissa Madeson, Ph.D.
Steve Irwin

Steve Irwin

Steve has spent the last 19 years in the Australian Fitness Industry as a Group Fitness Instructor, 1-1 Coach, State Manager, Business Owner and is currently an Educator for the Australian Institute of Fitness. A lifelong fitness enthusiast he started his working life in the Military which guided him into the fitness industry where his passion for helping others on their health and fitness journey has been realised. Steve believes that for anyone thinking about getting fit or healthy they should “just get started” as “doing something is better than doing nothing”.

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