The Emotional Benefits of Exercise

By Kristi Finn, M.A., LCPC


Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental illnesses in America with more than 40 million Americans diagnosed with anxiety each year and 19 million Americans diagnosed with depression each year.  There are effective treatments available for anxiety and depression, which often include psychotherapy and medication.  In addition, there are many steps individuals can take to help themselves feel better, such as eating healthy, getting adequate sleep, participating in an enjoyable activity, and engaging in regular exercise.

Exercise helps prevent and improve other health problems such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, and cardiovascular disease.  In addition to the physiological benefits, studies have shown that people who exercise notice the following psychological benefits: an increased feeling of well-being, reduced dependence on alcohol and drugs, reduced insomnia, improved concentration and memory, greater control of feelings and thoughts connected to anxiety and depression, and increased self-esteem (Copeland, 2001).  Exercise can also help build social connections and supports, which assists in lifting mood.

Studies have indicated that thirty minutes or more of exercise several times a week can make a difference in your mood with aerobic activities such as running, cycling, dancing, and swimming making a difference more quickly.  However, it may seem difficult to think about exercising when you don’t feel well and your energy and motivation is low.  Integrating even small amounts of activity into your day can make a difference in how you feel.  This can be done by taking stairs instead of an elevator, parking a little farther from your destination and walking, going for a stroll around your neighborhood and greeting people as you walk by, and gardening.

Researchers at the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (2011) have offered the following suggestions to begin integrating exercise into your daily routine: 

  1.  Begin by finding an activity that is enjoyable and choosing a time of day that is most feasible for consistent follow through.
  2. Talk to your doctor about your plan to exercise to get additional support and address any health concerns.
  3. Set reasonable goals that meet you own needs and abilities.  For example, start with a 10-minute walk twice a week and gradually increase once you are consistent.
  4. Don’t think of exercise as a chore, but as another tool to help you get better.
  5. Address any barriers that make it difficult to exercise such as feeling self-conscious (you may feel better exercising with a partner or group) or financial concerns (you can find a form of exercise that is cost free such as walking).
  6. Prepare for setbacks and obstacles.  Give yourself credit for your accomplishments no matter how small.
  7. Don’t give up.  If you miss a day of exercise, start fresh the next day.

Making healthy changes to your lifestyle can be a difficult yet rewarding process that can lead to improved mood and feeling better about yourself.  Receiving support while making these changes can be very beneficial.  


Kristi Finn, M.A., LCPC, works in our Sandwich office.