Sweat therapy

The research is conclusive: exercise lifts our mood. This blog is fourth in a series on managing negative emotions, using a toolkit that includes meditation, journaling, exercise, talking to a friend, and taking care of basic needs like sleep and nutrition. Exercise may be the most powerful of these tools, because it appears to work for everyone, regardless of age or health status.

In a longitudinal, non-randomized case study of one, I find my own depressed emotional state can be completely lifted when I drag myself to exercise class. A gloomy, flat-affect entrance becomes an energetic, optimistic exit after an hour of cardio. If I storm out of the house angry and hop on my mountain bike for an hour or two, I come back much more likely to work things out than explode into a thousand tiny pieces.

The panacea of exercise

Working out won’t cure all your ills, as the title implies. But it does make us physically healthier in a hundred ways. It can reduce the risk of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, some cancers and type 2 diabetes, it strengthens bones and muscles and helps keep us mobile, plus it increases the chances that we’ll live longer. It also helps keep weight under control, which on its own is a big risk factor to health and quality of life. In addition to shoring us up physically, however, exercise also provides mental health benefits. (1)

Exercise affects our brain chemistry and improves our ability to think and solve problems, according to Dr. John Ratey, professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical school. Aerobic exercise increases the size of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which attenuates fear and anxiety signals sent by the amygdala. (2) Michael Otto, a professor of Psychology at Boston University, notes that our mood can improve even a few minutes into moderate exercise. (3)

Exercise combats anxiety

Researchers at University of Southern Mississippi studied individuals with anxiety sensitivity, a known precursor for panic attacks and panic disorder. Subjects exercised on treadmills at low-intensity (walking) or high-intensity (raising heart rates to between 60 and 90 percent of predicted maximal heart rate) levels. Both exercises reduced anxiety sensitivity in participants, but the high-intensity workout was more effective, with anxiety levels reducing faster and yielding twice as many participants who responded to this treatment. (4)

In a 2011 study, subjects breathed air enriched with carbon dioxide, which stimulates some of the same symptoms of a panic attack — increased heart rate, increased respiratory rate, dry mouth and dizziness. Naturally, those with high anxiety sensitivity were more likely to panic with the CO₂-enriched air, but high anxiety sensitivity paired with high activity levels meant a decreased likelihood of panic. (3) Exercise helped anxious individuals to moderate their responses to anxiety-inducing situations.

Exercise diminishes depression

You know better than anyone that a jog, brisk walk or swim can lift your mood, but there is compelling evidence that exercise is even effective in treating clinical depression.

  • A population study in the Netherlands looked at teen and adult twins and their families and found that of the 19,288 participants, those who exercised regularly were less depressed. (Bonus exercise effect: active individuals were also found to have more tendency to thrill and adventure seeking — X Games, here we come!) (5)
  • Data in a study of an elderly population showed that as moderate intensity aerobic exercise and strength training increased, depression decreased. (6)
  • In a study by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 202 adults with major depressive disorder (MDD) were assigned to one of four groups: supervised group exercise, home-based exercise, antidepressant medication (Zoloft) or a placebo. After four months, 41 percent of these individuals no longer met the criteria for MDD, with the supervised exercise group achieving remission in similar numbers to the antidepressant medication — 45 percent and 47 percent, respectively. A year later, the type of treatment did not predict whether individuals were still in remission, however, those who stayed active physically had lower depression scores. (7)

Read this article about how being too happy or too sad can sabotage exercise


The Mayo Clinic weighs in on how exercise eases symptoms of depression and anxiety


Psychological benefits of exercise



  1. Physical activity and health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Accessed Nov. 11, 2016.
  2. Freedman J. Physiology of emotion, exercise, and change. SixSeconds website. Oct. 3, 2011.
  3. Weir K. The exercise effect. American Psychological Association. 2011;42(11):48.
  4. Broman-Fulks JJ, Berman ME, Rabian BA, Webster MJ. Effects of aerobic exercise on anxiety sensitivity. Behavior Research and Therapy. 2004;42(2):125-136.
  5. De Moor MHM, Beem AL, Stubbe JH, Boomsma DI, De Geus EJC. Regular exercise, anxiety, depression and personality: A population-based study. Preventive Medicine. 2006;42:273-279.
  6. Deslandes A, et. al. Exercise and mental health: Many reasons to move. Neuropsychobiology. 2009;59:191-198.
  7. Blumenthal JA et. al. Exercise and pharmacotherapy in the treatment of major depressive disorder. Psychosom Med. 2007;69(7):587-596.
Dana Vaughan

About Dana Vaughan

Dana completed a Master of Public Health (MPH) and a Master of Social Work (MSW) at San Diego State University, and has worked in family planning education, prenatal counseling, and child development. She loves her mountain bike, her husband, her kids, and her faith—although possibly not in that order.

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