In this article we shall look at the effects that exercise has on psychological well/ill being.  In todays society 25% of people experience anxiety disorders and 20% of people experience depression (Dishman, 2004). By 2020, depression will be second only to cardiovascular disease as the leading cause of death and disability (Lopez, 1997).  Many studies have looked at the effect of exercise on well being and it has been found that exercise is related to decreases in anxiety and depression as well as increases in feelings of general well being (Landers, 2001).  Exercise can have a number of immediate effects on well being and can also have dramatic changes over long periods of time.


There are a number of acute affects associated with exercising such as lower state anxiety and higher tranquility scores. As well as this there are increases in positive engagement (Focht, 2001). Intensity, duration and type of exercise can also play a role on anxiety levels. Exercise intensities between 30% and 70% of maximal heart rate are associated with the greatest reduction in post-exercise state anxiety. For anaerobic exercise (e.g., weightlifting), mood-enhancing effects are evident at 30% to 50% maximum heart rate. Moderate-intensity exercise produces the greatest positive effects in affective responses.

In terms of the long-term benefits it has been found that exercise has many positive effects on anxiety. Physical fitness is positively associated with mental health and well being and long-term exercise is usually associated with reductions in traits such as neuroticism and anxiety. Appropriate exercise results in reductions in various stress indicators: neuromuscular tension, resting heart rate, stress hormones.


Blumenthal (1999) conducted a study looking at the effects of exercise on depression. Participants with clinical depression were randomly assigned to one of three conditions:

  • Aerobic exercise
  • Medication
  • Combined

Results from the study showed that all three groups significantly reduced depressive symptoms. A moderate relationship exists between exercise and depression. Both aerobic and anaerobic exercises are associated with reductions in depression. Frequency and length of exercise also has a number of effects on depression. Exercising three to five times per week produces significant reductions in depression compared to once-a-week. Exercise also produces larger antidepressant effects when the training program is at least 9 weeks long.

Exercise and mood

Exercise is related to positive changes in mood state and has been found to improve positive mood regardless of the number of negative and positive affects experienced in a given day. There are a number of ways to enhance mood through exercise such as:

  • Avoid interpersonal competition
  • Make it a closed predictable activity
  • Use rhythmic and repetitive exercise movements
  • Exercise 20 to 30 minutes in duration, moderate intensity, 2 or 3 times per week.

We shall now look at how exercise enhances well-being from a psychological perspective. It has been argued that exercise enhances feelings of control, leads to more positive social interactions, improves self-concept and self esteem and increases opportunities for fun and enjoyment

Exercise and Cognitive Functioning

Exercise has also been shown to have a number of positive effects on a person’s cognitive functioning. Thomas (1994) conducted a study looking at exercise on cognitive functioning and found that exercise has a modest positive relationship with improved cognitive functioning. As well as this chronic exercise, in comparison to acute exercise, showed greater effects on cognitive performance and exercise programs conducted over longer periods of time are associated with moderate gains in cognitive functioning. McAuly (2004) found that fitness training has beneficial effects on the cognitive functioning of older adults. Effects on cognition were largest when exercise training exceeded 30 minutes per session.

Exercise Addiction

Exercise addiction is defined as “A psychological or physiological dependence on a regular regimen of exercise characterised by withdrawal symptoms after 24 to 36 hours without exercise” (Sachs, 1981). There are 2 types of exercise addiction which are positive and negative.

Positive addiction is a condition in which exercise is viewed as important in one’s life but is successfully integrated with other aspects of life (healthy habit).

Negative addiction is a condition in which life becomes structured around exercise to such an extent that home and work responsibilities suffer. (Benjo,1990)

Symptoms of negative exercise addiction include: Giving increased priority over other activities to maintaining the pattern of exercise, increased tolerance to the amount of exercise performed, withdrawal symptoms related to mood disorder after cessation of the exercise and relief of withdrawal symptoms by further exercise. To prevent negative exercise addiction a person should:

  • Schedule rest days.
  • Work out regularly with a slower partner
  • Train hard–easy: Mix in low intensity and less distance with days of harder training.
  • Set realistic short- and long-term goals

Overall it can be seen that exercise can relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression and is positively related to positive mood and general well-being.

Exercise also increases self-esteem, self-confidence and cognitive functioning.

Finally negative exercise addiction can have very detrimental affects on well-being.

Exercise is not always good for us!