Aerobic Exercise Can Improve Mental Health


Besides physical benefits, aerobic exercise can contribute to improvements in mental health. A study reviewed literature about exercise and mental health and found “consistent evidence from many studies using various research methods demonstrating that aerobic exercise of 20-30 [minutes in] duration performed between three and five times per week is beneficial to mental health and well-being.”1 Mental health is a broad topic and includes many conditions. Two of these conditions affecting millions of people are depression and anxiety. Some studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise can improve and alleviate some symptoms of these conditions.

Aerobic Exercise and Depression

According to the World Health Organization, “depression is common, affecting 121 million people worldwide” and it is “among the leading causes of disability worldwide.”2 A common measure of the severity of depression is the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) score. The BDI is a series of questions which the subject answers and a score is produced. Some research has shown that after participating in a regular exercise program, patients with BDI scores corresponding to moderate to severe depression were able to reduce their scores into the mild to moderate category. Further, drugs with harmful side-effects are often prescribed to alleviate the depression, even though some studies have found them to be less effective than regular exercise programs.3 Depression can be very mild or very severe but regardless, regular aerobic exercise may contribute to the improvement of this condition.

Aerobic Exercise and Anxiety

Aerobic exercise may also be a factor in reducing anxiety. Three meta-analyses that examined the effects of exercise on anxiety found that “exercise of more than 20 [minutes in] duration appears necessary for reduction in anxiety levels, irrespective of how anxiety is measured.”4 A different study examining the effects of exercise on anxiety found that “exercise programs have the potential of alleviating anxiety, improving health, and fostering greater psychological and physical well-being.”5

There are differing views on why exercise improves anxiety symptoms. One view suggests that the increase in body temperature from exercise has the same effect that a warm bath might have on the body – relaxation and reduced muscle tension. Another view attributes the reduction of anxiety symptoms to the release of neurotransmitters which have a calming effect on the body. Yet another differing view suggests that exercise distracts people from the stressful events and thoughts that can produce anxiety.6 Regardless of the physiological reasons, exercise can have a beneficial effect on anxiety in some individuals.

  1. P. Callaghan, “Exercise: A Neglected Intervention in Mental Health Care?” Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing 11 (2004):481.
  2. World Health Organization [Web site] (2008); available from – Internet; accessed 1 April 2008.
  3. Callaghan, 478-479.
  4. Ibid., 479.
  5. Lauren Altchiler and Robert Motta, “Effects of Aerobic and Non-aerobic Exercise on Anxiety, Absenteeism and Job Satisfaction,” Journal of Clinical Psychology 50 (1994): 838.
  6. Callaghan, 480.

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Author: Piyawut Sutthiruk

Losing weight will keep you healthy and have a long life. Cheer Up!

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