Exercise and Psychological Well-Being

by: dotFIT Experts

Are you one of the 16 million Americans who suffer from depression, or one of the approximately 32 million who experience anxiety or stress? (1) It has been “estimated that by the year 2020, depression will surpass cancer as the second largest worldwide cause of disability and death, behind cardiovascular disease.”(2) Although people typically deal with these issues through counseling, individuals are now looking at exercise as a way to enhance their psychological well-being. There is ample support for the belief that exercise can improve mood, which is why many clinical psychologists and psychiatrists view exercise as an adjunct to therapy.(2) Not only is exercise beneficial to mental health, it is also more cost effective than therapy, and is associated with numerous other positive health benefits.(3)


Some of the symptoms of depression include withdrawal, inactivity, and feelings of hopelessness and loss of control. Because exercise can alleviate these symptoms, exercise can be a useful intervention tool for depression.(4) In support of the effects of exercise on depression, “a recent Gallup poll identified exercise as a close second behind religion as an alternative means of relieving depression.”(1)

Researchers have even examined exercise as a treatment for depression. Individuals who had been diagnosed as depressed were put into three groups: time-limited psychotherapy (10 weeks), time-unlimited psychotherapy, and a running-treatment group. Under the guidance of a running therapist, runners would stretch, walk, and run for 30-45 minutes, and discuss issues while exercising, with little emphasis on the depression itself. Results indicated that six of the eight patients in the running-treatment group were essentially well at the end of three weeks; another had recovered by the end of the 16th week; and only one neither improved nor deteriorated. This should not be taken to mean that depressed individuals should drop out of traditional forms of treatment, just that running is a useful adjunct to traditional treatment.(4)


Anxiety is defined as a state of worry, apprehension, or tension. It occurs many times without real or obvious danger. Research has shown that many people feel calm after a hard workout. They have forgotten their worries, and use exercise as an outlet for their nervous energy.(2) Thus, like depression, exercise seems to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety.

In one study, subjects were placed in one of three groups: jogging, stress-inoculation training, and waiting list. The participants’ self-report statements indicated that both the jogging and stress-inoculation groups had lower levels of anxiety than the waiting-list group immediately following the intervention. Furthermore, this finding held true when researchers followed up one month and 15 months later. It is important to note that the joggers only continued to experience lower levels of anxiety if they continued to exercise (which was about 40% of the original group).(4)

With anxiety, the reasons for improvement are unclear. It is thought that, in certain situations, the exercise environment plays a role in relieving anxiety, although it might be that subjects are distracted by exercise enough to divert their attention from what would normally be anxiety-producing stressors. What is clear and important for the purpose of this article is that exercise does alleviate symptoms of anxiety.


Stress includes some or all of the following symptoms: muscle tension, headache, stomach upset, racing heart, high blood pressure, sweating, flushing, dry mouth, and behaviors ranging from aggression to hyperactivity to withdrawal.(2) Stress can occur during a crisis of high impact or during the smaller everyday hassles of life. Studies have confirmed that exercise reduces and lessens the number of symptoms of stress by providing a short term distraction and increasing feelings of control, which might buffer the impact of stressful events.

In order to study stress reactivity, researchers compared the ability of exercisers and non-exercisers to recover after being subjected to a stressor, such as a timed, frustrating mental activity. In order to determine the magnitude of their psychological and physiological response to stress, and the amount of time it takes to return to baseline levels, these activities were given either to people who were in shape, or to people following intense exercise. It is believed that exercise may contribute to a “hardy” personality type, which is a person who can transform or buffer stressful events into less stressful forms by altering their perception of those events and placing less value on them. In that exercise contributes to a person’s hardiness, it is believed that exercise can lead to a reduction of stress-related illness by buffering reactions to stressful life events.(3)


From the above discussion, “it is clear that there are many benefits on psychological functioning that result from exercise.”(4) However, it is important to note that, although there is a relationship between exercise and psychological well-being, exercise should not be thought of as the sole cause for the improvements in psychological well-being.

So how do we tie all of this together? One of the best approaches for people dealing with depression, anxiety, or stress is to use exercise as an adjunct to any other forms of treatment that might be necessary. And in order for exercise to work in alleviating symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress, it has been suggested that the workout environment include fun, consistency, an avoidance of competitive situations, and activities that are personally satisfying and enjoyable.(1)

(1) Weinberg RS, Gould D. Foundations of Sport & Exercise Psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc. 2003.
(2) Buckworth J, Dishman, RK. Exercise Psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc. 2002.
(3) Landers DM, Dishman RK. Physical Activity and Mental Health. In Singer RN, Hausenblas HA, Janelle CM (Eds.). Handbook of Sport Psychology. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2001. p. 740-766.
(4) Anonymous. EXERCISE: Psychological Benefits of Exercise. The Online Journal of Sport Psychology. Psyched. 2002. Retrieved October 10, 2003 from http://www.psychedonline.org/articles/Vol2Iss2/PsychExerciseBenefits.htm

Exercise and Psychological Well-Being

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