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The Relationship Between Exercise and Mood

Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D. Updated: Mar 21st 2008

man lifting weightsThe headline of a recent USA Today story (“Gene Study: Exercise May Not Improve Mood“) may be misleading.  You might come away from this article with the idea that exercise has no impact on mood whatsoever, which is simply not what a large body of previous research suggests.

The current study (described in the USA Today article), of Dutch twins, suggests that a common set of genes influences both mental health and exercise behavior; and that the most mentally healthy individuals tend to be most active. The author of this study also suggested that across time, the changes in twin participants’ level of exercise didn't correlate with improvements or declines in mental health. 

Unfortunately, we don’t have access to the original study (because it was presented at an annual meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society and has not been published), so it is not clear how the researchers collected their information or conducted their analysis of results. 

What we do have, however, is a large body of research suggesting that exercise can impact negative moods, and can often be just as effective as psychiatric medications in treating depression. Other studies have found that when people stop exercising, they are more likely to get depressed; and that the more exercise someone got, the less his risk of having a mental health problem.

So really, the take home message of this study should be (as we point out in our article on major depression), that there is no one size fits all method for treating depression.  Exercise will work wonders for some, while not positively affecting the moods of others.  A person’s genetic makeup undoubtedly plays a role in what types of therapies will be beneficial, whether that is exercise, antidepressant medication, psychotherapy, etc. (

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