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Mental Benefits of Exercise

Let me start off by saying I am in no way a fitness guru, but I do experience the mind/body benefits of engaging in regular exercise. I would never have pictured myself eager to go on a run, but over time putting on a pair of gym shoes, headphones, and grabbing my running partner (my dog) have become something I look forward to. If I am completely honest, it is the after effects that are the biggest motivators- natural stress relief, the sense of accomplishment, and a satisfied, well-behaved dog.

Everyone has a different view on exercise and how high of a priority it is on the “to do” list (if it even makes the cut). No matter where you stand on the topic it is hard to deny the benefits. People hit the gym, courts, or pavement for many reasons, some of the most obvious being weight loss, building muscle, training, and increasing overall physical health. Without a doubt, these are positive incentives, but perhaps the most beneficial factors are mental rather than physical.

As I previously mentioned, the after effects are motivating. Not only is there the sense of accomplishment from investing in personal health and working toward fitness goals, but there are additional mental health benefits that make physical activity even more appealing. Over the last decade as our society has become more health conscious; studies have revealed the positive effects of exercise on mood and anxiety levels, leaving more consideration as to whether this can be a powerful tool to use in adjunction with other mental health services.

A closer look at the benefits of exercise

As a counselor, I believe it is always important to take a holistic perspective on the problems of the individuals I work with. I like to explore the balance between physical and mental needs and whether they can benefit from incorporating exercise into the treatment plan- let’s just say, very few would not benefit from increased exercise. People can experience both short and long-term mental health benefits just by engaging in regular exercise. It is suggested that 30 to 60 minutes 3 to 5 times a week will lead to improved mental health (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015).

Improved Mood

The chemicals released during physical activity have many mood-boosting properties and can lead to more energy, which makes this an important remedy for a low mood. Improved mood can be experienced within just minutes of exercise- next time you come home after a stressful day, give exercise a try! It has even been shown that individuals who engage in regular exercise experience lower levels of depression compared to those who do not. In a study by Blumental et al., (2007) looking at individuals who suffer from Major Depressive Disorder, it was found that the benefits of exercise were comparable to antidepressants with both groups experiencing higher remission rates.

Decreased Anxiety

With worry and anxiety, there is often a physiological component—arousal symptoms such as a racing heart, difficulty breathing, and sweating. These symptoms are very similar to our bodies’ reaction to exercise. For this reason, exercise-induced exposure to these symptoms can lead to a decline in the fear associated with anxiety sensations (Broman-Fulks & Storey, 2008).

Now What

The associated mental benefits are hard to ignore. People of all ages and capabilities can implement activities that are mood boosting, stress reducing and lead to increased self-esteem. No matter where you are on the spectrum of health, consider these tips to make it easier to incorporate regular exercise into your routine.

1. Find your motivation. 

The motivation for me is typically health, a stress reliever and the simple fact that my dog needs exercise. Your reasons may be different, but whatever they are it is important to identify them.

2. Pick a time that works with your schedule. 

You want to make this easy for yourself, pick a time that is convenient for you.

3. Try different types of activities. 

There are plenty of activities out there that are considered exercise and there is no rule about which ones you need to do- maybe it is walking rather than driving your kids to the park, swimming, running, yoga, going for a bike ride, or joining an intramural sports team, the possibilities are endless.

4. Set reasonable goals. 

Do not set out to run a marathon without training. It is important to know your physical limitations and start from there.

5. Celebrate your achievements. 

Anytime you engage in intentional muscle movement you are prioritizing your health and that is a reason to be proud of yourself.



Blumenthal, J. A., Babyak, M. A., Doraiswamy, M., Watkins, L., Hoffman, B. M., Barbour, K. A., . . . Sherwood, A. (2007). Exercise and Pharmacotherapy in the Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder. Psychosomatic Medicine, 69(7). doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e318148c19a

Broman-Fulks, J. J., & Storey, K. M. (2008). Evaluation of a brief aerobic exercise intervention for high anxiety sensitivity. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 21(2).

The Benefits of Physical Activity. (2015). In Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from

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