Emphasizing the Impact of Exercise on Mental Health

Emphasizing the Impact of Exercise on Mental Health

During an education session at the 2022 IHRSA Convention, the global wellness researcher at Matrix Fitness, Dr. Karlie Intlekofer, was joined by Dr. Cassi Vieten and Victor Brick of the John W. Brick Mental Health Foundation to discuss the mental health benefits of exercise. Each presenter shared their understanding of the relationship between movement and mental wellbeing based on their specialties. Together, they covered a continuum of topics to provide evidence-based reasoning why fitness facilities are crucial to mental health care.


Intlekofer, a neuroscientist by trade, described how movement is crucial for brain development and overall brain function. She outlined the immediate benefits of exercise including improved focus, lifted mood and better memory. While the immediate effects are rewarding in themselves, she also detailed the long-term advantages to quality of life.

Exercise impacts neuroplasticity, which Intlekofer defined as the brain’s capacity to adapt to change. Habitual exercise improves the environment that helps the brain to thrive. Because of this, Intlekofer reiterated that exercisers are working toward better mental health in the long term and can experience improvements in brain health, enhanced brain function and lowered risk of neurodegenerative illnesses. 


After the deep dive into brain chemistry, Vieten referred to pre-enlightenment, when science was solely focused on the body and matters of the mind were directed toward spiritual and religious practices. She introduced the shift in thinking and the subsequent birth of psychology, the science and medicine of the mind. From there, the field of study evolved into techniques for improving mental wellbeing and reducing common symptoms of mental health challenges. Vieten expanded on the contributing factors to mental wellbeing by describing an entire ecosystem of interlocking factors such as exercise, nutrition, support, etc. She expressed her dedication to having this multifaceted approach considered in overall healthcare. 

At this time, Vieten paused and stated that fitness professionals have an important role in elevating the mental wellness of the entire population. They can engage their communities in mental health care by understanding the connection between exercise and mental wellbeing, integrating applicable practices into the facility’s services and creating a safe environment for members to talk about it. 

Vieten suggested offering evidence-based behavior-change support for members as a starting point, so they can adapt to new exercise habits. She also recommended gamifying exercise and adding focus to community-based and affect-based exercise. She stated, “If exercise isn’t rewarding to them intrinsically, it is important to reward them in other ways.”


Intlekofer and Vieten covered two scientific approaches to the relationship between exercise and mental health. Victor Brick, the founder of the JWB Foundation and a health club franchise owner himself, spoke from the heart about the mental health challenges that his late brother John had battled much of his life. John experienced phases of institutionalization, where Brick noticed that the treatment was very one-dimensional and included periods of isolation. After John died from complications of schizophrenia, Brick knew John’s legacy would live on and he created the John W. Brick Mental Health Foundation to change the way the world treats mental health.  

Brick reflected on working with a treatment center where John had once been institutionalized to integrate movement into the treatment continuum using exercise equipment. A year later, the center reported back that the use of an isolation room had gone down 90 percent, which clearly exemplified the power of movement. He explained that connectivity and coping skills are two factors integral to improving mental wellbeing, and empathized that fitness facility closures due to the pandemic had an unfortunate effect on members’ access to them. 

In the past, the two reasons to join the gym were to “get bigger” or “get smaller.” Now there are more and more gym visits associated with feeling better and reaping the mental health benefits. Members aiming to see physical results are often outputting extended effort before experiencing a reward. Brick recommended helping members shift their thinking to a behavioral design journey that more closely resembles effort-reward-effort-reward and so on. The immediate reward of feeling good after exercise has become a more effective motivator.

All in all, promoting the mental health benefits of exercise that Intlekofer and Vieten covered can help exercisers reframe their goals, experience more rewarding workouts and increase exercise adherence. Forming exercise habits for improved mental wellbeing is on the rise, and fitness facility staff have a crucial role in embracing this movement.

To watch the recording of the education session, visit https://matrixlearningcenter.com/us/eng/emphasizing-the-impact-of-exercise-on-mental-health