Exercise — A Mental Health Superstar

Beginning exercisers are often frustrated by how long it takes to start seeing — and feeling — results. When you’re starting from square one, it can take 6-12 weeks or longer to even begin noticing a difference in your physical fitness level. Unfortunately, many people don’t make it that far — they decide it’s not worth it, and drop out.

Here’s what I wish everyone new to exercise understood — the mental health benefits of regular physical activity are powerful, and they’re often noticeable much sooner than the physical benefits. Recent research underscores the anti-depressive, anti-anxiety, stress-buffering, mood-boosting effects of exercise. Higher levels of physical activity have even been linked with greater levels of excitement and enthusiasm — could you use more of that? If you just hang in there and stay active, even when you don’t feel like it — especially when you don’t feel like it — the payoffs are priceless:

  • Exercise is used to treat anxiety and may be useful in preventing it. Subjects participating in a 2-week exercise program experienced big improvements in anxiety compared to a control group. Researchers say that because exercise increases heart rate, sweating, and breathing rate —similar to anxiety symptoms — it may serve as a kind of “exposure” treatment, conditioning patients to interpret the symptoms differently.
  • In a study of adults with diabetes and depression —conditions that often occur together — subjects undergoing a 12-week program of exercise and cognitive-behavioral therapy showed improvements in both depression and blood-sugar control.
  • Another study had subjects with major depressive disorder complete either a 30-minute treadmill workout or 30 minutes of quiet rest. Both groups reported similar reductions in distress, depression, confusion, fatigue, tension, and anger. But only the exercise group reported a substantial surge in positive well-being and vigor scores.

You don’t have to suffer from anxiety or depression to reap the mental health benefits of exercise — it’s a well-known way to combat stress, both in the moment and long-term. There’s nothing like a good, sweaty workout to blow off steam from a hard day at work or a long day with the kids; even a single bout of cardiovascular exercise can boost mood for up to 12 hours!

In my twenties, I exercised for one reason — weight control. I understood that regular exercise would reduce my risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other maladies, but the risk-reducing benefits of exercise weren’t enough to make me get up before dawn to work out before my 8:00 a.m. classes.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and at midlife, I find the mental health benefits to be a far more compelling reason to exercise. When I don’t exercise, I feel mentally weary and stressed out. After a moderate or vigorous morning workout, I feel fantastic — and carry that positive attitude into my workday and beyond. Sometimes it feels like magic.

Why not put a little sweat equity into your day? Building a strong heart and strong body will happen over time with regular exercise. But you can brighten your outlook and start feeling a whole lot better sooner than you think — just get up and get moving.


Beth Shepard, MS, ACSM-RCEP, ACE-PT, has a master’s degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Arizona. Beth is an expert in fitness and health promotion and a certified wellness coach, helping people thrive by adopting sustainable lifestyle changes. She and her family love to hike, bicycle, and try new sports. www.wellcoaches.com/beth.shepard


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  2. Ramirez A, Kravitz L, Resistance Training Improves Mental Health, IDEA Fitness Journal January 2012
  3. Bartholomew, J B, Morrison D, and Ciccolo JT. Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood and Well-Being in Patients with Major Depressive Disorder. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 37, No. 12, pp. 2032–2037, 2005.
  4. Conroy DE, Elavsky S, Hyde A, and. Doerksen S. The Dynamic Nature of Physical Activity Intentions: A Within-Person Perspective on Intention-Behavior Coupling. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 2011, 33, 807-827. Retrieved March 9, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2012/02/120208132709.htm
  5. American College of Sports Medicine, Boost Your Mood at Least Half the Day with Physical Activity, ACSM In The News, 2011

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