March 19, 2020, by mstalniceanu

Physical exercise improves mental health disorders: stigma or advances?

Written by María Ángeles Jiménez Sigstad

Nowadays, is a common knowledge that exercise has an impact on mental health. Most researchers suggest that it is a positive one rather than negative. However, autistic people and individuals with an introvert personality could potentially feel pressured by this knowledge. They could be socially rejected by their peers due to their reduced physical activity, which could damage their mental health.

A reduced amount of physical exercise could lead to the development of mental disorders. Scientist link this to the misregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This axis aids in the regulation of stress. To dig deep into the molecular aspect of this axis, we use animal models. Most of these are widely discussed to justify the use of animals for research. Still, they tend to involve the addition of an external stressor to induce anxiety-like behaviour. These models could be conditioned, punishable or learned, or unconditioned, unpunishable or unlearned. The idea is that these tests will resemble human anxiety-like behaviour to study the changes in molecular structures after the stress factor. However, these tests are not replicating all aspects of a specific anxiety disorder (1). Drugs are developed based on these animal experimentations.

A group of researchers of the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Nottingham (2) discovered that exercise in mice causes a positive impact on stress resilience, but pair-housing of mice reverses this effect. We could induce from these results that these mice could also be mimicking the behaviour found in people with an introvert personality. Therefore, we shouldn’t be focusing on the impact of exercise alone, but also the impact of social interaction on these animals.

Overall, physical exercise has been advertised as a tool to improve mental health treatment. It has generated stigma when an individual with a mental disorder is not in favour of doing any physical activity. People with Post Taumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be massively impacted by sensory overload. The same applies to autistic people. However, in some cases, physical exercise was used as an escape mechanism to cope with their disorder. In the case of PTSD, drugs aim to help individuals with sleep disorders or hallucinatory behaviour that could impact their day-to-day activity. But, there’s no cure. Also, we could argue that animal models are based on a subjective point of view of how anxiety behaviour is expressed in humans. How can we improve this to make them mimic human behaviour in all aspects, or should we concentrate more on developing computational tools to mimic our behaviour?


  1. Campos AC, Fogaca M V, Aguiar DC, Guimaraes FS. Animal models of anxiety disorders and stress. Rev Bras Psiquiatr. 2013;35:101–11.
  2. Pan-Vazquez A, Rye N, Ameri M, McSparron B, Smallwood G, Bickerdyke J, et al. Impact of voluntary exercise and housing conditions on hippocampal glucocorticoid receptor, miR-124 and anxiety. Mol Brain [Internet]. 2015;8(1):40. Available from:
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