Aug. 4, 2021

Why regaining physical fitness post-COVID may improve mental health

UCalgary exercise and public health expert Patricia Doyle-Baker highlights key benefits
Science of Sweat, Dr.Patricia Doyle-Baker
Riley Brandt

It’s no secret that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, healthy routines and habits suffered. With closed gyms, limited group fitness and decreases in day-to-day movement, maintaining activity levels has been a challenge for many.

This lack of exercise not only impacts our physical bodies, but it can also greatly impact our mental well-being. With lockdowns a thing of the past (at least for now) and other restrictions easing, it is now more important than ever to get moving, says exercise and public health expert Dr. Patricia Doyle-Baker, DrPH, associate dean (graduate) in the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Kinesiology. She says exercise and mental wellness are key as we inch our way out of the pandemic.

“Emotions elicited during the COVID-19 pandemic, like fear, have resulted in less healthy habits in students which we’ve seen take effect through increases in alcohol intake, substance use and being less active in a recent study completed by KNES grad Madison Grande (BSc’21),” says Doyle-Baker, referring to the yet-to-be published Fear of COVID-19 Effect on University Behaviours (FRESH) study.

How does exercise impact brain health?

“Physical activity works wonders for our health, but particularly our brain,” says Doyle-Baker. “Something as little as going for a walk after work or a bicycle ride around your neighbourhood can increase mental wellness substantially.” She adds there is a boost in blood flow to our brain when we exercise, which increases dopamine levels, subsequently helping to regulate our mood, which can include supporting positive feelings.

Physical activity can also be a useful strategy to reduce our anxiety and fearful thoughts. According to Doyle-Baker, “physical activity requires us to use our brains differently, and this helps us move away from irrational thoughts to clearer thinking and that helps overcome our fears.”

In fact, much of the research shows that dopamine is linked to a class of brain chemicals called endocannabinoids. These brain chemicals are responsible for reducing anxiety and increasing our contentment. Exercise provides a positive way for us to anticipate pleasure and increases our feelings of motivation.

Getting back into exercise routines

With all this good news linking exercise to mental wellness, how does Doyle-Baker suggest those who have become more sedentary re-enter or introduce exercise into their routines?

“The best way to start is to put more activity into your typical day,” she says. “If you can, take the stairs on campus or at home, where you might normally take an elevator. Walk outside instead of inside when moving from classes or meetings, or around the block at the start or end of a workday — breathing in fresh air is an added bonus for our health.”

Doyle-Baker suggests that, after more activity has been introduced, start looking into adding more strenuous exercise such as cardio, followed by increasing the duration of workouts, incorporating some resistance training, and maybe considering a local or on-campus group fitness class.

Doyle-Baker says there are benefits to working out with other people: “Remember that happy feeling related to exercise, a.k.a. the dopamine response? This neurotransmitter might further increase our need to connect with others, so finding a friend or co-worker to stay active (with) might not only help us stay active, but further improve our well-being and sense of connection.”

There are many ways to get your body moving on campus. UCalgary has one of the largest recreational programs in North America. With resources such as the Outdoor Centre and Fitness Centre, it makes it a lot easier to return to — or start — a healthy lifestyle.

To learn more about what activities the University of Calgary has to offer, please visit

The University of Calgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy is a bold commitment to the importance of mental health and well-being of our university family. Our vision is to be a community where we care for each other, learn and talk about mental health and well-being, receive support as needed, and individually and collectively realize our full potential. Learn more about the strategy here.