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Mental health and exercise

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Posted: Tuesday, June 15, 2010 11:00 pm

With the weather being back to three-digit temperatures, it is very easy to dismiss maintaining an exercise schedule, because it’s “just too hot.” However, a routine exercise schedule can have tremendous benefits. If you think exercise is only good to develop and maintain a lean body, strong muscles and heart, you are one of many who need to be educated on the benefits of physical activity on emotional, mental and psychological well-being.

Although there is ample research that shows the physical and health benefits of exercise, there is recent growing research showing that exercise promotes wellness and mental health. Research at Duke University (2009) concluded that individuals who were diagnosed with depression and completed a daily 30-minute exercise program for four months reported a significant decrease in depressive symptoms without medication.

Recent research observing the benefits and improvement in symptoms of anxiety, suggested that exercise was a benefit in reducing anxiety and stress, with an intense long-term and focused training program showing the best results. Some anxiety-related symptoms and type A driven individuals have shown a strong relationship between levels of stress and anxiety and the possibility of developing heart disease. This discovery is especially important because it is also essential to collaborate with your primary care physician before starting any exercise program to avoid exacerbating possible pre-existing medical conditions.

Another beneficial effect of exercise can be improved with restful sleep. Sleep researchers have concluded in recent studies that sleep duration, total sleep time and the amount of slow wave EEG activity is higher in individuals who are physically fit, but also showed significant positive effects in older, moderately fit women (Kubitz et al. 1996).

If an individual has anxiety and depression, it seems like motivation is very low and it’s difficult to begin a regimented exercise schedule. Initiation or beginning a program can be facilitated by an experienced trainer who can help you get started and carve out an individual exercise program that suits your personal needs.

So how does exercise help depression and anxiety? During and following exercise, the brain releases endorphins that enhance a sense of well-being and also support the production of serotonin and other neuro-transmitters (the “powerhouse” in your brain) that has a direct effect on symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress.

Exercise promotes the reduction of immune system chemicals that can make depression worse. It has also been suggested that raising your body temperature during exercise has calming effects.

In addition, exercise has psychological and emotional benefits (for all age groups, including adolescents and children), such as building self-confidence, taking your mind off worries, promoting social interaction and developing coping skills that are healthy and functional.

Recent research suggests that there is a strong relationship between exercise and improved mental health. This has been especially observable in reducing anxiety, depression and stress. Exercise promotes a positive physical self-concept and self-esteem, improvement in sleep quality, help in recovering from stressful psycho-social stressors and boosting the immune system.

Undeniably, exercise has physical, medical and psychological benefits for everyone. So what are you waiting for? Get a clear health bill from your physician and start checking out what exercise program may work for you.


Astrid Heathcote is a licensed psychologist with a private practice and residence in Ahwatukee Foothills. Reach her at (480) 275-2249 or

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