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Exercising to Improve Mental Health

When people think about treating anxiety and depression, they likely think about a therapist’s office, not the gym. Although it may sound strange, a growing body of research shows that exercise’s influence on treating mental health should not be overlooked.

Quite often we associate exercise with the physical benefits it results in – a fit physique, toned muscles, a healthy heart – but research shows that it may be more beneficial for your mood. In a meta-analysis examining the effect of physical activity on depressive symptoms, researchers found that physical activity decreased depressive symptoms in adults (Conn, 2010). Furthermore, the effect of exercise on mental health improvement is similar to the effect of psychotherapy and antidepressants (Blumenthal et al., 2012). Of course, exercise alone is not a substitute for mental health treatment, but when used simultaneously it can further aid treatment.

Given this research, it is clear that we should all engage in frequent exercise, not only for our physical health, but for our mental health as well. Like many things, however, exercising is often easier said than done. Below are some tips for integrating exercise into your lifestyle.

· Start slow. Pushing yourself too hard, too fast, will likely result in you not enjoying the exercise. Try starting slow and building yourself up. For example: if you want to start running, start by going on daily walks, and slowly increase the intervals you run. There are many “Couch to 5K” programs available online which can help you plan this.

· Focus on small steps, not the larger goal. For example, let's say you want to run 2 miles after work. If you’re tired after work and think “it’s time to run 2 miles,” you may feel overwhelmed and give up on your goal. Instead of this, only think about the next step. Instead of thinking “I need to run 2 miles,” think “it’s time to change into my running clothes.” Once your running clothes are on, focus on the next small step – going outside. Once you’re outside, focus on walking for a few minutes. By this point, you have likely built up enough momentum that starting to run doesn’t seem so daunting (Otto, 2011, pp. 44-46).

· Wear exercise clothes you like. Wearing clothes you like – and only wearing them when you exercise – helps signal to your body that it’s time to exercise (Otto, 2011, p. 50). Remember to keep them in the same, accessible place each day.

· Find an exercise you enjoy. If you hate running, you don’t have to run. You could try swimming, cycling, HIIT, hiking, or any other moderate intensity activity you enjoy. Weightlifting is also beneficial, and there are countless apps and websites which can teach you the basics.

· Make it social. Maybe you enjoy exercising solo because it gives you alone time to ponder and think – if so, keep going. If you don’t enjoy working out alone, however, or want to find more ways to interact with others, exercise could be a good outlet. Invite a friend (or friends) to workout with you. Not only does this make the process more social, but it can help keep you accountable and ensure you follow through with your plans. Even better: exercising is associated with stronger feelings of social integration (Hassmén et al., 2000).

· Emphasize moderation. Frequently, people think of exercise as being “all or nothing,” when it should be viewed as a spectrum. If you don’t feel up to an intense workout one day, consider going on a walk (or low intensity alternative) instead. Emphasize moderation and variation in your workouts (Otto, 2011, p. 22). And remember, small changes can lead to long-term, positive results.

· Speak to a doctor or personal trainer. Particularly if you have longstanding medical problems, or if you find the process particularly daunting, speaking to a trained professional about your concerns can help ensure an easy and safe transition.

At the end of the day, exercise is beneficial for your mental and physical health. Although it may seem daunting at first, making exercise a regular part of your life will improve your overall wellbeing.


Blumenthal, J. A., Smith, P. J., & Hoffman, B. M. (2012). Is Exercise a Viable Treatment for Depression?. ACSM's health & fitness journal16(4), 14–21.

Conn, V. (2010). Depressive Symptom Outcomes of Physical Activity Interventions: Meta-analysis Findings. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 39(2), 128–138.

Hassmén, P., Koivula, N., & Uutela, A. (2000). Physical Exercise and Psychological Well-Being: A Population Study in Finland. Preventive Medicine, 30(1), 17–25.

Otto, M., & Smits, J. (2011). Exercise for mood and anxiety proven strategies for overcoming depression and enhancing well-being. Oxford University Press.


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