What Exercise Can and Cannot Do for Anxiety and Depression

A psychologist answers your burning questions regarding the significance of exercise in mental health.
What Exercise Can and Cannot Do for Anxiety and Depression
A great deal of study has been conducted on the relationship between emotional health and physical activity, with most of it demonstrating how much one can influence the other.

What is the general opinion? According to a systematic review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2023, all exercise is "highly beneficial for improving symptoms of depression, anxiety, and distress."

What causes this bond to form, and are there any limitations to how well it works? We invited clinical psychologist Brad Thomas, Ph.D., of New York, who specializes in mental health and fitness, to provide his thoughts on what exercise can and cannot do for symptoms of sadness and anxiety.

What is it about exercise that assists people suffering from sadness and anxiety?

According to Thomas, movement generates feel-good neurotransmitters such as endorphins and serotonin, as well as other natural brain chemicals that can improve your mood and self-esteem.

Regular physical routines are a "wonderful example of behavioral activation," he adds. This suggests you're employing adaptive behaviors to elicit pleasurable emotions.

"Basically, you're creating a connection in your mind between exercise and enjoyment, and every time you work out, that connection deepens," he explains.

Walking, swimming, dancing, and other forms of aerobic exercise have been demonstrated to:

  •     Reduce stress
  •     Improve your memory
  •     Assist in getting a good night's sleep

"Even five minutes of movement can have a profound effect on your mood and your overall mental health."
Also of Importance

Is there anything that people who have been diagnosed with depression or anxiety should know about exercise before they begin?

According to Thomas, it's a good idea to consult with your doctor before starting an exercise regimen. If you're new to exercise, you'll want to talk about how to get started safely to avoid damage. Even if you are not new to exercise, it is a good idea to have a discussion to help set expectations and understand how exercise fits into your treatment plan.

After that, Thomas recommends working with a competent fitness trainer to create a plan that is reasonable for your schedule and lifestyle, demanding for your fitness level, and enjoyable.

Group classes, such as those provided by SilverSneakers, are another option he frequently suggests. "Classes bring in a social component, which is hugely helpful for mental health," according to him.

Journaling can also help you keep track of your development and advocate for yourself. Write down your thoughts and feelings before, during, and after various activities. "That can take the intensity out of difficult emotions and create greater awareness for how exercise is affecting you," according to him.
Can exercise replace therapy or other forms of managed care?

In a nutshell, no.

"A multitude of studies have shown the relationship between exercise and improved mood," Thomas asserts. "However, simply improving one's mood or symptoms of depression and anxiety does not qualify as treatment." Therapy can get to the bottom of what's creating those problems."

Furthermore, many mental health issues stem from biological factors, such as overactive or under active brain regions. A neurotransmitter imbalance is sometimes to fault. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in your body. The most frequent ones that control mood are serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.

"These underlying physiological components can be helped by exercise to some degree but may be better addressed with medication, depending on the situation," Thomas says.

That is why it is critical to communicate with your doctor about any symptoms and emotional difficulties you are having.