Laura Coia

What is the exercise effect?

Exercise is an ideal prescription for Stress, Anxiety and Depression. So let’s find out why. What is the exercise effect?

We all know that being active and exercising regularly is good for our physical health.

But, did you know of all the benefits being active can have on your mental well being?

Woman pushing heavy tyre
The exercise effect. Copyright of A Year of Small Changes. Benefits of exercise.

What are the benefits of exercise on mental health?

Studies have shown that exercise can improve many mental health conditions including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

As well as that, moving more has been shown to improve sleep. It can also reduce stress and can even help improve your memory.

Lastly, physical activity has a protective effect on your mood. This means being more active reduces the risk of developing new mood problems in the future.

Here are some of the benefits of the exercise effect:

  • Improving mood
  • Better sleep-both quality and length of sleep
  • Better sex drive and better sexual function
  • Improved fitness and stamina
  • Improved self confidence
  • Increased self esteem
  • More opportunity to socialise
  • Increased effectiveness at work

Why does exercise affect mental health?

We are not exactly sure why the exercise effect works. However, here are some theories from studies that have been performed:

  1. Exercise increases the brain chemicals Serotonin and Dopamine in your brain. These chemicals result in an increase in energy levels and have a ‘feel good’ factor.
  2. Brain cells also uses these chemicals to talk to each other. We think higher levels from exercise make our thinking clearer and reduce stress levels.
  3. Higher levels can also wake up other brain chemicals. This helps with growth of brain cells. The effects of this are best seen with moderate, more than intense exercise. *
  4. Exercise reduces inflammation in the brain and the harmful changes caused by stress.

How well does exercise work for anxiety and depression?

Depression and the exercise effect


However, this is not to say we should stop using anti-depressants and other medication all together. Indeed, many patients with moderate or severe depression and anxiety will improve with these drugs.

What IS clear though is that increasing physical activity can help EVERYONE who is struggling with their mood. This is regardless of how severe their symptoms are. 

Keeping up with regular exercise once your mood has improved has also been shown to reduce the risk of relapse. (2) 

Anxiety and the exercise effect

Regular exercise may help reduce Panic and Anxiety.

Regular physical activity gets the body more used to the feelings of being short of breath, your heart racing and feeling sweaty.

As a result these feelings become associated with a positive experience rather than the usual ‘fight or flight’, panicky feeling. This then can help reduce the sense of panic felt by people who have anxiety. (3) 

How can I get myself started?

It is far more difficult to motivate yourself to exercise when you are feeling depressed or anxious. No one can argue with that. But, we can all be a little more active by making really small changes.

Being even slightly more active will start to lift your mood. It will give you a sense of achievement and boost your self esteem.

In no time you will be well on your way to feeling better.

Brain lifting a bar bell overhead to reduce stress
Image courtesy pixabay. The exercise effect-mental health benefits to exercise

Other hidden benefits of exercise

Confidence improves as your stamina increases and you see physical changes in your body. As well as that, no-one can deny the sense of achievement you get from exercising when you really can’t be bothered.

People report a sense of improved control over their lives and bodies. They also report improvements in self esteem.

What type of exercise works best?

The answer to this is easy. ANY!

You can take part in any type of exercise from walking to cycling to boxing and weight training. This is because we know that as long as your body is moving your are gaining health benefits.

Some studies show rhythmic repetitive exercise like running or walking have the biggest impact on mental well being. This is thought to be due to the calming effect of the rhythm produced.

Yoga, pilates and regular stretching can help reduce the muscle tension that builds up during periods of depression and anxiety. 

Lastly, many symptoms of stress and anxiety can improve with work on stretching and relaxing our muscles on a regular basis. For example, symptoms like headaches, shoulder or neck and back pain and tingling hands and feet.

We are all different, for example I prefer a mix of weight training, boxing and walking outdoors for some peace and quiet.

So, how much exercise do we need to do?

ANY exercise is far better than none. So any improvement you can make in your activity levels in an excellent start.

For some people this may mean starting by walking round your living room or your garden a couple of times a day. And that’s absolutely fine. Then, as you gradually improve your fitness and stamina you can build up from there.

A MODERATE level of exercise seems to reap the most benefits. 

An example of moderate exercise would be fast paced walking. This is walking at a pace that makes you feel like you are working hard. But, at the same time you should still able to chat to someone walking with you.

The UK guidelines for physical activity in adults can be found here:

Chart showing UK physical activity guidelines and benefits of exercise
Image courtesy of Exercise effect. Benefits of regular exercise

The amount of exercise in the guidelines is too much for me – what can I do?

Your long-term aim might be to build up to 30 minutes of walking 5 days per week. And this would fit in with the guidelines. But you don’t need to do it overnight – start small.

Additionally, if this seems like a lot you could think about breaking the walks into shorter ones. For example you could walk 10-15 minutes throughout the day and do it two or three times. It still counts. Furthermore some studies suggest 3 sessions of 10 minute fast bursts of walking may even have more health benefits.

BUILD UP IN SMALL STEPS. Any increase in activity means health gain! So there are real benefits to be gained even if you can’t get above ten minutes for some time.

Other related blog posts


(1) Blumenthal, Psychosomatic Medicine 2007, Clinical Psychology: Science and practice 2006.

(2) Blumenthal, Psychosomatic Medicine 2010 “Exercise seems not only important for treating depression but also in preventing relapse.”

(3) Otto and Smits book 2011 “Exercise for Mood and Anxiety: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-being”

    1 Response to "The Exercise Effect"

    • M Coia

      Great article. Displays the many benefits gained by exercise. Even small ones. In these trying times the mental benefit is as important as the physical benefit.
      Thanks again

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