Exercise and Your Mood

Updated: Aug 10

Let’s talk exercise. Exercise is distinct from just any physical activity like doing chores around the house or taking the occasional hike. Exercise is planned, consistent, and designed around the purpose of intentionally improving your physical fitness[5]. But why talk about it in a mental health blog?

Around half an hour of exercise has been found to decrease anxiety and improve your mood for a few hours, but more so for people who experience episodes of anxiety than chronic worry[9,10]. Still, it distracts you from your problems for a time and also makes you feel proud of yourself for accomplishing something difficult[8]. It’s important to give you a break from everything that’s going on, but care should be taken that it’s not overused. Some people have become addicted to exercise, which meant they experienced worse mental health symptoms and even reduced physical health as a result of exercising too much[10] or suddenly stopping[2]. Usually, though, people with mental health conditions don’t get enough. Depression and anxiety, for example, have been linked to reduced physical activity, which ironically is the very thing that can help alleviate these problems[12].

Many if not most people and researchers alike picture respiratory conditioning (think “cardio” on treadmills at the gym) when they hear about the word exercise[1,4]. However, this appears to be only one of many forms of exercise that improve emotional and psychological wellbeing[8]. Non-aerobic forms of exercise like yoga, tai chi, swimming, and muscular strength training (e.g., lifting weights) have also been shown to reduce anger, tension, and other symptoms of anxiety and depression[3,7]. This effect has plenty of applications. Symptoms of anxiety have been found to be significantly reduced in people with a wide range of conditions from cancer to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Schizophrenia[8].

When considering exercise as a way to manage mental health symptoms, it is helpful for people to be mindful of other purposes that might be motivating them. For example, a negative self-image or self-judgment about weight or body appearance can tempt people to use exercise as a means to change themselves. Using exercise for this reason has been linked to disordered eating and conditions such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa[6,11]. Needless to say, this is not a healthy use of exercise. Physical activity should not be used compulsively or addictively but in moderation with the goal of improving depressive, anxious, or other mental health symptoms.

As always, consult with a doctor or specialist when considering an exercise program. Existing health conditions including acute injuries and chronic diseases should always be taken into consideration when changing physical activity levels.

[1] Abd El-Kader, S.M. & Al-Jiffri, O.H. (2016). Exercise alleviates depression related systemic inflammation in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease patients. Afr. Health Sci., 16 (4), 1078–1088.

[2] Antunes, H.K.M., Leite, G.S.F., Lee, K.S., Barreto, A.T., Dos Santos, R.V.T., de Sá Souza, H., Tufik, S., & de Mello, M.T. (2016). Exercise deprivation increases negative mood in exercise-addicted subjects and modifies their biochemical markers. Physiol. Behav. 156, 182–190.

[3] Berger, B.G. & Owen, D.R. (1992). Mood alteration with yoga and swimming: aerobic exercise may not be necessary. Percept. Mot. Skills, 75 (3 Pt 2), 1331–1343.

[4] Broman-Fulks, J.J., Berman, M.E., Rabian, B.A., Webster, M.J., (2004). Effects of aerobic exercise on anxiety sensitivity. Behav. Res. Ther. 42 (2), 125–136.

[5] Caspersen, C.J., Powell, K.E., & Christenson, G.M. (1985). Physical activity, exercise, and physical fitness: definitions and distinctions for health-related research. Public Health Rep, 100 (2), 126–131.

[6] Dalle Grave, R., Calugi, S., Marchesini, G. (2008). Compulsive exercise to control shape or weight in eating disorders: prevalence, associated features, and treatment outcome. Compr. Psychiatry, 49 (4), 346–352.

[7] Martinsen, E.W., Hoffart, A., & Solberg, O. (1989). Aerobic and non- aerobic forms of exercise in the treatment of anxiety and disorders. Stress Med, 5, 115–120.

[8] Mikkelsena, K., Stojanovskaa, L., Polenakovicb, M., Bosevskic, M., & Apostolopoulosa, A. (2017). Exercise and mental health. Maturitas, 106, 48-56.

[9] Paluska, S.A., Schwenk, T.L. (2000). Physical activity and mental health: current concepts. Sports Med. 29 (3), 167–180.

[10] Raglin, J.S. (1990) Exercise and mental health: beneficial and detrimental effects. Sports Med, 9 (6), 323–329.

[11] Voelker, D.K., Reel, J.J., Greenleaf, C. (2015). Weight status and body image perceptions in adolescents: current perspectives. Adolesc. Health Med. Ther., 6, 149–158.

[12] Wegner, M., Helmich, I., Machado, S., Nardi, A.E., Arias-Carrion, O., Budde, H. (2014). Effects of exercise on anxiety and depression disorders: review of meta- analyses and neurobiological mechanisms. CNS Neurol Disord Drug Targets, 13(6), 1002-14. doi:10.2174/1871527313666140612102841. PMID: 24923346.

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