Exercise for Mood, Anxiety, & Well-Being

Photo from UC Regents, all rights reserved.
Photo from UC Regents, all rights reserved.

Exercise is good for you! Everyone knows this, yet many people never exercise or don't exercise enough. Why should you? One reason is the growing scientific evidence indicating that exercise enhances mood, reduces anxiety, and improves overall well-being.

Here, we discuss the benefits of exercise in relation to two common problems: anxiety and depression. In addition, the concept of exercise abuse is addressed. First, here are some terms used on this page:

  • Aerobic Exercise: Continuous exercise without rest periods, such as jogging, swimming laps, and riding an exercise bike, that increases your heart rate.
  • Resistance Exercise (or Anaerobic Exercise): Exercise that has intermittent rest periods, such as lifting weights, and is designed to build strength.
  • Regular Exercise: A consistent exercise regimen, as opposed to inconsistent exercise or single bouts of exercise.

Exercise and Anxiety

Exercise has long been known to be a good way to relax when a person is feeling anxious or nervous. However, the manner in which exercise and anxiety reduction are related is not simple or necessarily obvious. How does a person maximize the anxiety-reducing benefits of exercise? Should a person jog, lift weights, or swim? How hard should they exercise? The following may help, although it must be noted that some disagreement remains in the research findings on these issues.

  • Single bouts of aerobic exercise have been shown to reduce anxiety for several hours. This appears true whether the intensity of the workout is low or high, although it seems that with high-intensity workouts, there may be a “lag time” immediately following exercise (some research would indicate around 20 minutes) before a reduction in anxiety is felt.
  • Bouts of resistance exercise have not been shown to reduce anxiety in the short term. While it cannot be conclusively said that no such benefit exists, present research has failed to show such benefits.
  • Regular aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease the amount of anxiety a person typically experiences in their daily life. It appears that low- to moderate-intensity exercise is best for oveall anxiety reduction, while an exercise intensity level that is too high may not be of as much (if any) benefit.
  • The impact of regular aerobic exercise on the amount of anxiety a person typically experiences in their daily life is even greater for those who have a diagnosable anxiety disorder. This appears to be true regardless of whether a person experiences any increases in physical fitness. It also appears that this benefit is noted when the intensity of exercise is low to moderate.

Exercise and Depression

Exercise is also considered to be a good way to help a person get out of a depressed state. As many people feel unmotivated, sluggish, tired, and lethargic when they are experiencing a depressed mood, it would seem to make logical sense that exercise could help them “get going.” Research does show benefits related to exercise, but it is important to realize that not all types of exercise are equal in the benefits they provide. Here is what the research has demonstrated about the impact of exercise on depression:

  • Aerobic and anaerobic exercise have both been found to lead to improvements in mood. This seems to be true in the short term, although studies show that a single bout of exercise is more likely to reduce anxiety than depressive symptoms just following exercise. It does not appear that an increase in physical fitness level is necessary to achieve a reduction in depressive symptoms. These results have been found across different types of people who differ in physical fitness level.
  • Regular exercise does seem to be somewhat effective in reducing the likelihood of a relapse in depressive symptoms for people who have had a depressive episode.
  • Research regarding the effectiveness of exercise amount or intensity has been less clear. However, research does seem to indicate that mild- to moderate-intensity exercise may be more effective in reducing depressive symptoms than more intense exercise.
  • Exercise has been shown to have antidepressant effects for those diagnosed with mild to moderate clinical depression but may not affect the occasional low moods in non-depressed people.

Exercise Abuse

Exercise can have helpful effects related to mood, anxiety, and overall physical fitness level, but it can also lead to problems for some individuals when performed in excess. Overexercise can lead to health, relational, or even financial problems. The concept of exercise abuse is discussed commonly in the fitness world and is often misunderstood by the population at large.

Exercise abuse is a difficult concept to define. It was previously known by other names, such as exercise addiction, exercise dependency syndrome, and activity anorexia. It was first identified in runners who were experiencing a variety of physical and psychological difficulties related to their running program, but it can occur with any type of exercise. It is perhaps best defined through its symptoms, which include the following:

  • Excessive reliance on exercise, usually daily, as the primary (or sometimes only) means of coping with emotions, anxiety, and self-esteem. It often leads to a state in which the person is continually increasing the amount of exercise they perform, as they build a “tolerance” to exercise. This may result in the individual beginning making other important activities and responsibilities (e.g., work, school, family, and/or social obligations) secondary to exercise.
  • Exercising even while sick or injured. Because the exercise abuser exercises often and at a high intensity level, they are at high risk for injury. Despite being injured, such individuals often refuse to stop exercising long enough to let injuries heal (even serious injuries such as broken bones). They often have a fear of not staying in shape or gaining weight, losing their identity as someone who is into exercise, or losing their ability to cope with stress and emotions. Exercising while injured can result in more serious injuries, and exercising while ill can delay recovery.
  • Experience of withdrawal symptoms. It often takes an external event to get an exercise abuser to stop exercising (e.g., an injury that absolutely prevents exercise). When such an individual does stop, commonly reported symptoms are similar to those in substance abuse, such as altered sleep patterns, difficulty concentrating, mood swings, physical symptoms (e.g., muscle stiffness and soreness), and distorted self-image (e.g., thinking one looks “fat” or “too skinny”). Symptoms such as these can have a rapid onset (i.e., within a few days).


Exercise can provide many benefits for people experiencing difficulties with mood and anxiety.
However, relying solely on exercise as a means of coping is not recommended. While exercise
can have many positive effects, it should be used as a complement to therapy for mood or anxiety
problems. If you are experiencing significant depressive or anxiety symptoms, you should consult
a mental health professional.

As is also readily apparent, exercising to excess and sole reliance on exercise as a coping
mechanism can lead to serious problems. As such, it is important to consult a physical fitness
professional if one is uncertain about the amount or intensity of exercise s/he is presently doing or
would like to do. Exercise can be dangerous if one does not receive proper supervision or training.
Further, proper training can ensure that a person gets the maximum results and enjoyment from
their exercise regimen.

Adapted from material originally developed by the University of Cincinnati Psychological Services Center
and Division of Student Affairs and Services.