Psyched Online

EXERCISE: Psychological Benefits of Exercise

By Paul Schienberg, PhD

In today’s modern world, we often hear individuals who exercise make statements about how they feel better then they did before they started exercising. If you were to ask these people to clarify what “better” means, most people would focus on the physical benefits. There is no doubt that engaging in activity has many physical benefits including weight management, improved cardiovascular fitness and control over diabetes and osteoporosis. However, there are also many psychological benefits to exercise which include positive effects on memory & thinking and improvements in levels of depression and anxiety. Let us take a closer look at each one of these.

Memory and Thinking

Many researchers have examined the effects of aerobic and anaerobic exercise on memory and thinking. The results have been mixed but for the most part indicate that moderate levels of exercise (regardless of type) improves performance on memory and thinking tasks including addition problems, recall of numbers and words, perception & discrimination of geometric figures, and organization. It is important to note that both high and low levels of exercise have been found to either have no effect or actually impair performance on the tasks. The reason for this is unclear and is currently being studied.


Clinical depression is one of the most common psychological problems in our country. According to data from the President’s Committee on Mental Health, one of every four Americans suffers from depression at any given time. Depression is characterized by withdrawal, inactivity, and feelings of hopelessness and loss of control. By acting on each of these symptoms, physical exercise can be a useful therapeutic intervention for depression. Indeed, people who are physically active, have lower rates of diagnosable depression. One study conducted over a twenty year period found that those individuals that were most physically active at the beginning of the study were less likely to develop depression at a later date.

Researchers have even examined exercise as a treatment for depression. Individuals who had been diagnosed as depressed were put into three groups: time limited psychotherapy (10 weeks), time unlimited psychotherapy, and a running treatment group. The runners met with a running therapist and would stretch, walk and run for thirty to forty-five minutes, and discuss issues while exercising with little emphasis on the depression itself. Results indicated that 6 of the 8 patients in the running treatment group were essentially well at the end of three weeks, another at the end of the 16th week, and one that neither improved nor deteriorated. This should not be taken to mean that depressed individuals should drop out of traditional forms of treatment, just that running is a useful adjunct to traditional treatment.


One generally accepted benefit of exercise is anxiety reduction. In other words, people who exercise just feel less stressed or nervous. In general, research has supported this notion. In one study, subjects were placed into one of three groups: jogging, stress inoculation training, and waiting list. Individual’s self-report statements indicated that both the jogging and stress inoculation groups had lower levels of anxiety then the waiting list group immediately following the intervention. Furthermore, this finding held true when the researchers followed up one month and 15 months later. It is important to note that the joggers only continued to experience lower levels of anxiety if they continued to exercise (which was about 40% of the original group).

The reasons for improvements discussed above are unclear. Some people feel that various exercise strategies serve to divert or distract subjects from anxiety and depression-producing stressors. In addition, if you are working out at a gym or park, social contact works to reduce the isolation typically associated with depression. Another reason for the improvements in psychological well-being is that exercise alters various neurotransmitters within the brain (norepinephrine and seretonin) which is precisely the function of medication that is prescribed by psychiatrists. This should not be confused with the unsubstantiated theory that the release of “morphine-like” chemicals within the pituitary gland and the brain serve to reduce the painful effects while also enhancing the euphoric effects.


From the above discussion, it is clear that there are many benefits on psychological functioning that result from exercise. However, it is important to note that the relationship between physical activity and mood should be thought of as correlational not causative. That is to say, they are related but exercise should not be thought of as being the sole cause for the improvements in mood.

Although some studies featuring highly anxious patients have shown that exercise reduces both anxiety and depression significantly more than a placebo treatment, others have found the reverse to be true. More specifically, one group was told that their regimen was specifically designed to facilitate psychological well-being and no such intervention was made with the control group. The results showed improvements in fitness for both groups; but, the experimental subjects improved significantly on a measure of self-esteem when compared to the no intervention control group. This means that just thinking that something is good for you, is enough for it to have a beneficial effect.

So how should exercise be used to improve mood? If you have been diagnosed with an anxiety or mood disorder, probably the best approach to take is to use it as an adjunct to the treatment you have discussed with a mental health professional. Always use follow the guidelines that they set forth for the treatment of your particular disorder and be sure to voice your interest in using exercise as an adjunct to treatment.