Exercise and Mental Health

Exercise has many known physical health benefits, decreasing risk factors for various diseases, reducing risk of premature death, and enhancing muscle strength and endurance.1
Shooting star

Researchers have also found exercise to play a role in mental health and have focused much of their research around its role in combating clinical depression, reducing anxiety, and enhancing mood.

Exercise and Depression
A large body of research suggests a significant relationship between exercise and decreased depression. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services states there is strong scientific evidence supporting physical activities role in reducing depression. These mental health benefits are found in individuals who do aerobic or a combination of aerobic and anaerobic activities 3 to 5 days a week for 30-60 minutes at a time; however some research has shown lower levels of exercise to be just as effective.1 One 2009 study found that exercise produced the same anti-depressive effects as psychotherapy,2 suggesting that exercise might be helpful in treating clinical depression.

Exercise and Anxiety
Physical activity also appears to reduce symptoms of stress-related emotions such as anxiety. The greatest decrease in anxiety has been shown among individuals who engage in regular physical activity. The anxiety reducing effect produced from habitual exercise likely motivates individuals to continue engaging in regular physical activity.3

Exercise and Mood
Exercise has been known to affect certain moods. A 2010 study presented at the American College of Sports Medicine concludes that exercise appears to be the most effective mood-regulating behavior, and the best general strategy to change a bad mood.4 While research surrounding this topic is limited, current evidence is encouraging.

More recently, anger has been investigated as a mood modulated by exercise. A 2010 study tested 16 young men with high levels of aggression. The participant’s anger levels were tested post-exercise. Results indicate that even a single exercise session had a preventative outcome against the buildup of anger.4

Mechanisms of Action
There are many possible mechanisms to explain the physiological and psychological changes that occur during physical activity, however many hypotheses are related to brain neurotransmitter levels. Serotonin and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters which relay chemical signals from one area of the brain to another, are targeted in many current anti-depressant medications and are hypothesized to play a potentially significant role in the anti-depressive effects of exercise. Many researchers believe that low levels of serotonin and norepinephrine may influence mood in a way that leads to depression. Exercise has been found to increase both of these neurotransmitters, thereby increasing mood and alleviating depression.2 Additionally, some researchers have found a link between exercise and increased total sleep time, which has a positive effect on serotonin levels.2

Furthermore, psychological factors, such as enhanced self-esteem and body image following exercise, have been found to positively influence depression.2


Check out our Science Library or read more about Science and Weight Watchers.


1 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Chapter 2: Physical Activity Has Many Health benefits

2 Rethorst C, Wipfli B, Landers D. The antidepressive effects of exercise: a meta-analysis of randomized trials. Sports Medicine. 2009;39:491-511.

3 Hoffman M, Hoffman D. Exercisers achieve greater acute exercise-induced mood enhancement than nonexercisers. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 2008;89:358-63.

4 Kanning M, Schlicht W. Be active and become happy: an ecological momentary assessment of physical activity and mood. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 2010;32:253-61.

Free Newsletter Get it now