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by Barry Tigay, Ph.D

Regular exercise has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression and insomnia. It can be used to prevent psychological symptoms or employed in conjunction with psychotherapy and/or medication when symptoms are severe or long lasting. Exercise can raise self-esteem, help reduce weight, and divert one’s attention to positive pursuits. Physical exercise also appears to act specifically to stretch tense muscles, deepen breathing and alter a person's biochemistry to promote mental health. If you are feeling tense, anxious, depressed, stressed or having difficulty sleeping, perhaps an exercise program is just the thing to get you feeling better. However, if your symptoms are severe or prolonged you should consult a professional.

Our sense of emotional distress is often related to a feeling of things being out of our control. When we are depressed or anxious we often feel trapped and as if things are happening to us and we cannot protect ourselves, or we don’t know an effective course of action to  improve our situation.

Exercise seems to change all of that. After beginning and sticking to even a modest exercise program, people begin to feel a sense of taking control over their life. They often describe a sense of mastery over themselves, their body and their lives.

Biological Factors

Stress and anxiety lead to a pattern of physical reactions characterized by tense muscles, rapid shallow breathing and the stimulation of the adrenal glands which pour adrenaline into the system. This is known as the fight or flight response ( see Hans Selye, M.D.). The body is mobilized for action. It may be that tens of thousands of years ago this was an adaptive response. Aggression and/or escape may have been the best solutions to many conflicts as our species evolved.

Additionally, increased physical activity in the daily lives of our ancestors many years ago may have continually modulated the build up of stress. Today, however, we live in circumstances which don’t allow for as much running and fighting as in the past.

While psychotherapy can help us understand the inner conflicts that lead to bottled up anger, examine the fears and stresses that generate anxiety, develop interpersonal awareness to help us develop assertiveness and help us change self defeating thought patterns; there still remains a physical component to anxiety, and depression.

Exercise helps us absorb and burn off the excess adrenaline that can lead to symptoms such as sweating and shakiness. Additionally, exercise promotes the production of pituitary gland secretions known as endorphins. These natural anti-depressants can safely and powerfully promote a sense of well being.

What Type of Exercise?

Experts have generally recommended aerobic exercise as the preferred way to reduce anxiety, depression and insomnia. Activities such as walking, running, swimming and bicycling which raise the heart rate significantly, but are not so exhausting that we cannot continue re-supplying our body with air (hence aerobic meaning "with air"), for twenty to thirty minutes have proved beneficial. Recently, new research has indicated that more intense exercise is beneficial. Additionally, weight training has recently been shown to be very beneficial.


Kathleen Moore is a psychologist at Duke University Medical Center. Her work there in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences has focused on the effects of short and vigorous or "acute" exercise on a group diagnosed with clinical depression. Moore studied 55 individuals over the age of 50. Her subjects completed the Profile of Mood Survey (POMS) as a baseline measure before exercising. After vigorous exercise on a treadmill they were post-tested. Moore found that her exercisers reported an 82 percent reduction in symptoms of depression, tension, anger, confusion and fatigue. Patients who had been experiencing mild, moderate or severe depression all had similar results.

Moore cautioned that more research is necessary. This study did not control for the effects of a sense of accomplishment and mastery contributing to the psychological improvement nor did they control for the effects of interaction with the exercise technician. Her research is part of a larger five year study ongoing at Duke.

The beneficial effects of exercise may be dose related. Paffenbarger, et. al. showed that subjects who expended 1,000 to 2,500 calories in aerobic exercise evidenced a 17 percent lower incidence of depression than their sedentary counterparts; but those who expended 2,500 calories per week or more had a 28 percent lower incidence.

Begin Your Exercise Program

In beginning your exercise program, it is best to go easy and set modest goals. Choose an activity that is convenient, and doesn't require expensive or hard to use equipment. Most of all, choose an activity that you enjoy. Remember your favorite activities from when you were young and try one of those. For most people, walking is an excellent activity to begin with. It has little risk of injury and doesn't require special skills. If you are concerned about your health, consult a physician before beginning to exercise.

Begin gradually with short distances and a gradual pace, however exercise frequently. Every day do something active. You will be trading the habit of being sedentary and inactive for one of activity. It will take time to change this habit but remember, right from day one you are changing status. No longer a couch potato, you are now an athlete.

A step then one more.
A walk becomes a journey.
And so a full life.
- Lao Tao

If you feel tired or stiff stop after a few minutes. However, baring illness or injury, give yourself the five minute test. Begin exercising each day and see how you feel after five minutes. The first five are the most difficult. We have to learn to conquer inertia. Old habits hang on. You will find that the hardest part is getting up and starting. Once you are moving it gets easy.

To strengthen your exercise habit, set goals and reward yourself for your achievements. Set modest, easily attainable goals such as walking for thirty minutes, six times per week. Reward yourself with a new warm up suit.

Employ the other self help techniques. Add socialization by exercising with friends. Educate yourself about exercise. Practice meditation and focusing techniques as you exercise. Stay with it. Make exercise a lifelong habit.


Exercise Articles

Exercise Fuels the Brain's Stress Buffers; American Psychological Association

Exercise Gives a Lift to Psychotherapy; American Psychological Association




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