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Examining the Relationship Between Exercise and Mental Health

Updated on February 26, 2015
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Liam Hallam is a sports science graduate. He is also a keen cyclist and a lover of the Derbyshire Dales and Peak District.

Understanding Theorectical Relationships Between Sport, Exercise and Mental Health

We all know that exercise can be prescribed as a potent medicine for it's physiological benefits but many individuals are less aware of the role of exercise in the treatment of mental health disorders.

Physical exercise has been shown to have positive psychological benefits for exercisers and is often prescribed as a treatment for anxiety, stress and depression but it has it's place in regulation of of positive mental health as well.

Even governments are now seeing the general health benefits of increased activity and taking steps to nurture a more energetic culture.

Regular Aerobic Exercise Can Do Wonders For Your Mental State

Aerobic exercises like cycling have a positive effect on your mental state and can reduce psychological stresses in the long term
Aerobic exercises like cycling have a positive effect on your mental state and can reduce psychological stresses in the long term

The Relationship Between Exercise and Positive Mental Health

The International Society of Sport Psychology (1992) showcases the relationship between exercise and enhanced mental health as

  1. Exercise can be associated with reductions in an individual's state anxiety
  2. It can be associated with decreases in levels of mild to moderate depression
  3. Neuroticism and anxiety can be associated with long-term reductions
  4. Exercise can form part of a program of treatment for severe depression
  5. Various stress indices can be reduced
  6. It can have beneficial effects on the emotions of all ages and genders.

Have You Ever Used Exercise as a Treatment for Mental Health

Have you ever personally used, or recommended exercise as a suitable treatment for mental health

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Whether you're walking, running or cycling- Exercise can have a positive effect on mental health
Whether you're walking, running or cycling- Exercise can have a positive effect on mental health

Chronic and Acute Exercise Effects in Sport Psychology

Many scientific studies conducted focus on the chronic (regular, long term) effects of exercise in a psychological aspect. Short duration acute bouts of exercise have been shown to be effective also however the benefits of acute bouts of exercise are often less visible with limited reductions in factors such as state anxiety when compared to chronic exercise.

Acute bouts of exercise can result in measurable reductions in negative mood states however these need to be built into chronic exercise habits for long term psychological effects in the same manner many medicines require multiple doses to be effective.

The efficacy of exercise in the regulation of psychological behaviors
The efficacy of exercise in the regulation of psychological behaviors
The cycle of letting your mood effect your activity levels
The cycle of letting your mood effect your activity levels

Stress Inoculation as a result of Chronic Exercise

Our ability to protect and react to stresses throughout our lifetime is often referred to a our stress inoculation. The continuous and regular nature of aerobic exercise has been shown to inoculate against the stress and general life hassles experienced compared to less physically fit individuals.

Healthy behavior which results in enhanced fitness can help to protect against the various health problems we can experience throughout our lifetime and while the specific mechanisms of protection may not be specifically known, the effect they have could likely be related to central and autonomic nervous system adaptation. (Cox, 1998)

Music as Motivation

Listening to positive music during exercise can enhance it's feelgood effects as well as reducing the perceived level of exertion.

Exercise as Treatment for Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety and depression are two of the most popular psychological disturbances within modern society and affect both normal and psychiatric individuals.

It has been shown throughout many scientific studies that both acute and chronic exercise can be used to effectively treat symptoms of depression with the most positive results being shown in cases where an individual requires psychological assessment and professional care. The effects of exercise as a mental health tool can be shown in normal individuals as well as those requiring psychological care.

Studies have also shown exercise to be a more potent treatment than relaxation in the treatment of depression although results have been greater with exercise combined with specific psychotherapy techniques.

The benefits of a consistent exercise regime to our psychological health can be just as positive as the physiological effects shown.

Theories That Try to Explain the Relationship Between Exercise and Mental Health

As with any psychological theory it's hard to truly attribute the the theory to the reality. A number of theories and hypotheses have been suggested to examine the relationship between exercise and enhanced mental health.

  • Cognitive behavioral hypothesis
  • Social Interaction hypothesis
  • Distraction hypothesis
  • Cardiovascular fitness hypothesis
  • Amine hypothesis
  • Endorphin hypothesis

The Cardiovascular Fitness Theory

Now rather out-dated, the cardiovascular fitness hypothesis associated mood state with cardiovascular fitness levels. However this clearly doesn't take into account that some athletes at the top of their game have been seen to become depressed and suffer from symptoms of anxiety.

The Cognitive Behavioral Hypothesis

Put simply, the cognitive behavioral hypothesis works on the theory that exercise can nurture and develop positive thoughts to counteract negative mood states such as anxiety and self-worth. As an individual masters a task such as performing exercise they experience an increase in personal self-efficacy. Feelings of accomplishment ensue as the participant moves towards becoming a regular exerciser which can break negative thought chains.

Social Interaction Hypothesis

When we interact socially it can be a pleasureable experience and generally has the effect of improving an individual's mental health. The social interaction hypothesis only provides a partial explanation for the psychological of benefits of exercise when in a group.

Distraction Hypothesis and Exercise

Exercise can offer a distraction from our worries and circumstances. Any activity that distracts an individual from their problems falls into the distraction hypothesis. Gentle activities like meditation and yoga have also been shown to help, however in the long term regular exercise has been shown to have stronger effects on an individual.

The Amine Hypothesis

By suggesting that an increased level of the chemicals produced during sport and exercise leads to enhanced mental health, the amine hypothesis focuses on our neurotransmitters. Our neurotransmitters are responsible for giving out the signals which lead to neuromuscular action.

Depressed individuals often feature a reduced level of secretion of amines including dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. Exercise can stimulate these neurotransmitters which will subsequently lead to a positive enhancement to our mood state.

The Endorphin Hypothesis and Exercise

Endophins can have a powerful effect on us by reducing symptoms of pain and making us feel happier. The euphoria associated with the transmission of endorphins acts to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression as well as turning around negative mood states. Exercise leads to the production of these 'feel-good' chemicals.

Sadly whilst these endophins can have a short term effect on our mood state they haven't been shown to have a longer term effect.

If You're Inactive and Feeling Down

Please Consult Your Doctor Before Entering into an Exercise Program to Ensure You're in Shape to Get Started.


Cox, H. R., (1998) Sport psychology: Concepts and applications. 4th ed. McGraw Hill.


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