Improve Your Mental Health: Exercise!

There are so many reasons to exercise – and not all of them are about getting a better body. Working out also enhances your mind. According to a U.S. Surgeon General's Report, regular participation in physical activity appears to reduce depression and anxiety, improve mood and augment the ability to perform daily tasks.

Rob Jackson, a Colorado psychologist in private practice, is a big proponent of exercise for his clients. "I always address exercise, rest and nutrition," says Jackson. "If you plug into those, there is an exponential increase in mental health. Nothing impacts brain chemistry quite like exercise." Jackson often prescribes exercise as a remedy for patients with mild cases of anxiety or depression. "Exercise is a heck of a better deal than anti-anxiety medications, where you can run the risk of addiction." Jackson experienced the healing benefits of exercise firsthand when he was a junior in college and developed a severe case of mononucleosis. The illness prevented him from taking anxiety medication. "After eight weeks of lying flat on my back, I began walking about twenty minutes per day and built up to three miles per day, six days a week," says Jackson. "The exercise helped me recover from my bout with anxiety and depression." Sometimes, the very people who are stressed out, gloomy and unmotivated, who can benefit from exercise, find it hard to get started. How do you solve this dilemma? "You need a vision," says Jackson. "Ask yourself what could I do six months after working out that I am not able to do now... what kind of outlook would it give me? Envisioning the benefit is consistent with any change."

If you can make the leap to regular physical activity, you will reap many benefits for your mental health, including:

reduced stress

Not everyone struggles with mental health issues, but everyone faces stress in their lives. Dr. Diane Stoler, a sports psychologist, works with her patients to develop emotional and physical flexibility. She advocates exercising to reduce stress: "By exercising, you break the cycle of stress. You're releasing chemicals, changing the brain waves and staying in the present. You are staying focused, not thinking about your next deadline. You can't relax and be tense at the same time."

Stoler says the movement of major muscle groups through exercise can reduce worrisome thoughts that cause stress.

A Brighter Outlook

Psychologists have found that exercise is a successful alternative for treating depression. Just think what it can do for those who only suffer from an occasional bad mood!

Psychologist James Blumenthal, Ph.D., and colleagues at Duke University conducted studies of patients with major depressive disorders. They were treated with medication, exercise and a combination of the two. The study concluded that patients receiving any of these treatments were significantly less depressed and approximately two-thirds were no longer depressed. Follow-up studies revealed that patients in the exercise group were more likely to be partially or fully recovered than those in the medication or medication plus exercise group.

To attain the psychological benefits of exercise, the Association for Advancement of Applied Sports Psychology states that even a brief walk at low intensity is advantageous. To reduce depression or anxiety, effective exercise programs should last longer than ten weeks and occur three times per week; 15 to 30 minutes per session for depression and 15 to 20 minutes for anxiety.

A Sharper Mind

"Exercise can also help you to be more alert and increase your ability to learn," says Stoler. "If you are in a relaxed state, you have a better ability to stay in the present and remember things."

"Exercise creates new synaptic connections. If you don't use it, you lose it," she says. "A person at 70 or older can have the same mental capacity, barring any degenerative disease, that they did when they were younger. Exercise maintains what I call the plasticity of the brain. There is no reason not to think as sharp and fast as you age." Regular physical activity does much more than keep off unwanted pounds. "Exercising the body exercises the mind," says Stoler.


Association for Advancement of Sports Psychology: Jackson, Rob, MS, LPC, LMHC, NCC
National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion Psychosomatic Medicine September/October 2000 issue

Stoler, Dr. Diane EdD

This information and other information on this site is intended for general reference purposes only and is not intended to address specific medical conditions. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice or a medical exam. Prior to participating in any exercise program or activity, you should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional. No information on this site should be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition.