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Christy Matta, M.A.Christy Matta, M.A.
A Blog on Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Mindfulness and Stress Reduction

The Impact of Exercise on Your Mental Health

Christy Matta, M.A. Updated: Dec 7th 2011

People know that exercise can improve physical health. Exercise is regularly recommended by medical professionals to improve diseases such as cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes. But exercise is not commonly a significant part of a treatment regimen for people who suffer from mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

runningMost people in the general population understand that regular exercise is beneficial to physical health. Now, new research suggests that it has equally important mental health benefits.

"The link between exercise and mood is pretty strong," says Michael Otto, PhD, and professor of psychology at Boston University, in this monthsMonitor on Psychology. In the October 2011 issue of The American Psychologist, Roger Walsh describes exercise as healthy, inexpensiveand underused to treat psychiatric disorders.

Unhealthy lifestyles can contribute to an array of physical problems and can play can an equally important role your mental health and maintaining a sense of well-being. Otto likens failing to exercise when you're feeling bad to "explicitly not taking an aspirin when your head hurts."

Below I summarize, some recent findings on how exercise impacts mental health.

Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

Exercise offers preventative and therapeutic psychological benefits. It can reduce the risk of depression and chronic pain, as well as neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. Walsh's review of the literature found that depression, anxiety, eating addictive disorders and body dysmorphic disorders are all responsive to exercise as an adjunct to treatment. Even some symptoms of schizophrenia can improve with exercise.

Depression is the most studied mental health disorder in relation to exercise, but new studies are finding similar psychological benefits of exercise in the treatment of anxiety.In fact, in one study exercise was generally comparable to antidepressants for patients with major depressive disorder, while participants in a two-week exercise program showed significant improvements in anxiety sensitivity.

How does exercise effect the brain?

One theory is that exercise increases serotonin(a neurotransmitter targeted by antidepressants)levels. A second theory suggests exercise helps improve sleep. With better sleep, mood improves.

Other possible effects of exercise on the brain and mental functioning include the release of endorphins in the body (Endorphins are a chemical in the brain associated with positive mood); the break down of muscle tension through exercise can improve sleep and decrease physical pain and discomfort associated with depression; improvements in self-esteem, a feeling of accomplishment and feelings of self-worth; and an interruption of cycles of negative thoughts and rumination.

What type of exercise proves a valuable adjunct to medication and therapy?

Researchers are not yet clear on which types of exercise are most effective for which people. Aerobic exercise has been the focus of most studies, but weight training may have equally beneficial results. Yoga and other mind-body exercises have been around for centuries but have not yet been thoroughly studied. In general, studies have found higher intensity workouts tend to be more effective, although lower intensity still have benefits. However, these results are shown to vary, depending on both gender and family history of mental illness.

If exercise makes me feel good, why can't I get off the couch?

You may be starting out too hard. When you start a new exercise program and exercise so hard that during exercise you find it hard to talk you can postpone the mental health benefits (mood boost) as much as 30 minutes-enough time to make many people give up exercise for good. Otto also blames a "national apathy to activity." He says that the months of waiting for the physical results of exercise to become apparent can be a "recipe for failure." Instead, Otto recommends attending to the mood boost that accompanies exercise, which is a much more immediate gratification.

Given the low risk of side effects and the substantial positive effects, it is an important option to consider when you are looking to improve your mental well-being.


Christy Matta, M.A.

Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free You from Needless Anxiety, Worry, Anger, and Other Symptoms of Stress.” She is intensively trained in DBT and has designed and provided clinical supervision to treatment programs, including a winner of the American Psychiatric Association Gold Award. Matta has a Master of Arts in counseling psychology from Boston College. For more on her consultation and trainings visit her web site For more tips and mindfulness tips and strategies visit her blog

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Exercise can help those with OCD - Janet Singer - Dec 16th 2011

My son, now twenty-two, suffered from severe OCD several years ago. As things began to improve, he would sometimes exercise, either by going for a brisk walk or using machines at the gym. He always commented on how much better it made him feel and it was also obvious to us.....thankfully he is doing great now, though I wish he'd still exercise once in a while!

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