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Mental exhaustion can be a debilitating condition that impacts both your cognitive and physical health. If you’re experiencing burnout, you may find it difficult to go about your day-to-day life.  

There are many ways to make a big impact with small lifestyle changes. Incorporating exercise is an effective way to reduce the effects of mental stress. All it takes is one 30-minute session of moderate physical activity.

In this blog post, we’ll cover how exercise helps with burnout, activities to start doing now, and how to create a burnout recovery plan.  

What is burnout? 

Burnout is a state of feeling emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted after prolonged and overwhelming exposure to stress. Individuals experiencing burnout often have difficulty going about their daily life and can feel depleted. Chronic burnout can increase one’s risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  

Common symptoms of burnout 

What does burnout feel like? If you’re experiencing burnout, you may have symptoms such as: 

  • Low energy 
  • Low confidence 
  • Withdrawal from loved ones and friends 
  • Feelings of helplessness 
  • Forgetfulness 
  • Irritability 
  • Anxiety 
  • Trouble concentrating 
  • Physical symptoms such as: 

    • Headache 
    • Trouble sleeping  
    • Lack of appetite 
    • Muscle tension 
    • Pain 
    • Fatigue  

How does exercise help with burnout?  

When you experience burnout, your brain endures a level of mental exhaustion that overloads the central nervous system and decreases mental cognition. Exercise effectively manages burnout because it provides a cognitive regeneration strategy that lets your cognitive processes and central nervous system recover. 

You may be surprised how quickly exercise makes an impact on the symptoms of mental fatigue. According to a recent study, just one 30-minute session of moderate exercise improved feelings of mood, tiredness, restlessness, self-perceived cognitive abilities, and motivation. It also impacted cognitive flexibility as well, which is the brain’s ability to adapt and navigate new, unplanned events. 

There are other ways exercise helps with burnout. It can: 

  • Improve cognition. Exercise increases blood flow in the body and the brain, especially the hippocampus responsible for learning and memory 
  • Help boost mood. Physical activity releases your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters like endorphins, which are associated with the feeling of a runner’s high.  
  • Improves sleep. Moving your body increases your sleep drive. Exposure to sunlight also helps set your body clock and sleep-wake cycle. So, where possible, try exercising outside.
  • Boosts self-confidence. Exercise improves your body image and sense of strength, as well as your own capabilities.  
  • Increases motivation. One of the common symptoms of burnout is a lack of motivation and feelings of depression. Exercise mitigates this so you feel energized to take on what’s next.  
  • Reduces anxiety and stress. Physical activity takes your mind off stress and releases feel-good hormones like endorphins and endogenous cannabinoids (your body’s natural cannabis-like brain chemicals). 
  • Boosts energy. Getting your heart pumping stimulates your body to create more mitochondria, which are your powerhouse cells. They help create energy from the food you eat and the oxygen you breathe, which is why exercise helps with feelings of lethargy.  

The key to getting the most impact out of exercise is variety. Incorporating brief strenuous exercise with regular moderate exercise is optimal for improving your cognitive state. It also sets your central nervous system up for success by increasing blood flow pathways of oxygen and encouraging neuroplasticity 


Not sure where to start? These exercises are easy to implement today and require no equipment. If you’re a beginner, you can easily find videos and tutorials online to follow along with.  

  1. Running – This aerobic exercise is an easy way to create a variety between moderate activity and brief strenuous activity. Jog around the block and then find incline-like stairs or a hill to run up.

  2. Yoga – Practicing yoga combines moderate activity with mindfulness and meditation. Try a combination of vinyasa flows and restorative yin yoga.  

  3. Walking – Walking briskly can raise your heart rate and help you get some fresh air and sunshine, which contributes to a healthy sleep-wake cycle.

  4. HIIT workouts – HIIT workouts involve intense activity for 10-60 seconds followed by active recovery. These kinds of exercises have variety built-in to make it easy for you.

  5. Pilates – If you’re experiencing muscle tension and strain as a physical symptom of burnout, pilates can reduce this while also strengthening and toning your muscles.

  6. Dancing – Not only can dancing be fun, but it’s also the perfect opportunity to enjoy some music. Listening to music helps calm the nervous system and lower cortisol levels. It also stimulates the production of dopamine, your brain’s happy chemical.

Exercise is just one component of burnout recovery. It may be helpful to create a plan to help support your mind and body while you recuperate from mental exhaustion. This involves incorporating specific lifestyle changes to help manage symptoms.   

Components of a burnout recovery plan can include: 

  1. Support from your network. This can include support from medical professionals like your general practitioner and therapist. They can provide recommendations and additional insight where needed. Don’t be afraid to reach out to loved ones and friends to confide in and do activities with. 

  2. A good diet. A Mediterranean diet has been recommended for optimal brain and body health. Focus on lean meats and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Healthy foods provide the right kind of fuel for your body and brain. Eating low-nutrient foods contributes to feelings of low energy and lethargy. It’s also a good idea to reduce your alcohol and caffeine intake.

  3. Adequate sleep. Getting enough sleep helps with emotional regulation, which contributes to your body’s ability to process and release stress. 

  4. A variety of physical exercises. As mentioned, your central nervous system will benefit the most from a variety of cardiovascular exercises. Pair regular moderate activity with brief, higher-intensity workouts. This also helps keep your brain engaged and interested. 

  5. Daily mindfulness and meditation. These practices help you stay present and reduce feelings of stress and anxiety from burnout. They also decrease self-judgment and improve resiliency, compassion, and emotional regulation. 

  6. Keeping a journal. Journaling improves self-awareness and mood. It provides an opportunity to self-reflect, release emotions, and process the impact of stressful events. Journaling is also an integrative cognitive activity that stimulates both hemispheres of the brain which strengthens neural pathways, focus, and improves general cognition and cognitive flexibility. 

  7. Rest. Possibly the most important part of your recovery: take time to rest. Explore options for medical leave and make sure you take time away from stressors where possible.
  8. Practicing cognitive pacing. Cognitive pacing is a way to manage the strain of mental activity while slowly increasing the brain’s abilities. Exercise paired with a cognitive pacing strategy can manage and reduce mental exhaustion during everyday activity. It helps create a balanced routine to support your recovery.
What does cognitive pacing look like for burnout? You can start by: 
  1. Creating a list of priorities. 
  2. Breaking activities up into smaller parts. 
  3. Padding mental activity with breaks such as exercise or other low mental strain activities. 
  4. Allocating half of the day for rest and not overly strenuous mental activity. 
  5. Avoiding over-stimulating activity. 


Your mind and body are linked. As a part of a holistic plan to support your mental health, exercise can have a positive impact on your physical health as well. While exercise can help with burnout recovery, be sure to reach out to your general practitioner if symptoms persist after incorporating these activities into your daily life.  

Are you experiencing employee burnout or know somebody who needs help? There are many ways to manage mental health and create balance. Read our top tips here.

To learn more about cognitive health and maintaining mind and body balance, check out the blogs on the Virtual Vine 


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