Psychological Benefits of Exercise

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We often hear about the physical benefits of exercise but there are also psychological benefits. Did you know that engaging in a moderate amount of physical activity will result in improved mood and emotional states? Exercise can promote psychological well-being as well as improve quality of life.

The following are common psychological benefits gained through exercise:

  • Improved mood
  • Reduced stress as well as an improved ability to cope with stress
  • Improved self-esteem
  • Pride in physical accomplishments
  • Increased satisfaction with oneself
  • Improved body image
  • Increased feelings of energy
  • Improved confidence in your physical abilities
  • Decreased symptoms associated with depression

Exercise and your Mood

Research has shown that the connection between exercise and mood is pretty strong. In fact, within five minutes of moderate exercise, a mood enhancement effect is observed. Additionally, several randomized controlled trials have suggested that active people are less depressed that inactive people. The benefits of exercise on mental health go well beyond the short term, as exercise can also help to alleviate long-term depression. The effects of exercise have been shown to be comparable to antidepressant medication for people with mild to moderate depression, and exercise can help prevent relapse.

Exercise and your Brain

How does exercise help with depression? There is a great debate about what exactly causes these positive changes in depression symptoms among people who regularly exercise. Some researchers believe that exercise relieves depression by increasing serotonin (a chemical in the brain targeted by antidepressant medications) or brain-derived neurotrophic factor (which supports the growth of neurons, the brains messenger system). Others believe that exercise helps by normalizing sleep, which has protective effects on the brain.

There are psychological explanations as well. Exercise may boost a depressed person’s outlook by helping them return to meaningful activity and providing a sense of accomplishment. In addition, we know that how a person responds to stress is moderated by activity, therefore, exercise may enhance the brain’s ability to respond to stress.

The Mind-Body Connection

Biologically, exercise seems to give the body a chance to practice dealing with stress. Exercising results in the physiological systems of the body communicating more than usual with one another. For example, the heart communicates with the blood vessels, which communicate with the lungs, which communicate with the muscular system. All of these systems are controlled by the central and sympathetic nervous system. Working out the body’s communication system is a great benefit of exercising because the more sedentary we get, the less efficient our bodies will be in response to stress.

Starting a New Habit

Even with knowing the benefits of exercising, it can be difficult to start a new habit. Try just focusing on increasing movement – don’t overdo it and make it a miserable experience. Start slow and increase steadily. Exercise even when you feel bad, that is when you get the greatest mood boost!

Dr. Renee Simons, Psy.D
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapist

The Association for Applied Sport Psychology
Weir, K., (2011) The Exercise Effect. American Psychological Association 41 [11], 48.
Dishman, R.K. & Sothmann, M. (No Date) Exercise Fuels the Brains Stress Buffers. American Psychological Association.

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