The mental health problems that have received the most attention are anxiety and depression. While millions of people suffer from anxiety disorders and depression, many do not have severe mental health problems; however, they do experience subjective distress, which is another way of expressing unpleasant emotions.
Most studies that have examined the relationship between exercise and an overall reduction in anxiety and depression have demonstrated a link to the other. We can’t state that exercise is the first reason to cause or produce the change in mood state. However, exercise appears to be associated with positive changes in mood states and a reduction in overall levels of anxiety and depression.
In the past, exercise was believed to improve psychological health only if it lasted for a certain period of time and if it was intense enough. Modern research has indicated that high-intensity aerobic activity is not absolutely necessary to produce these positive benefits (1). On the contrary, activities such as weight lifting or strength training, yoga, pilates, and other nonaerobic exercises have been demonstrated to produce positive effects on psychological well-being too.
Most research on the acute effects of exercise has focused on the reduction of state anxiety, and, similar to previous studies (2), research showed that aerobic exercise resulted in lowered state anxiety and higher tranquillity levels (3). These studies have also shown that moderate-intensity exercise produces the greatest improvements in affective responses (4). Knowledge of what psychological changes they might expect at given exercise intensity levels can help individuals choose the most appropriate level of exercise for their continued psychological well-being.
For example, two studies (5, 6) compared different anxiety reduction techniques, with jogging examined alongside stress management interventions. Over the course of the intervention period, state anxiety decreased significantly in both jogging and stress management groups. But, more importantly, these reductions in state anxiety were maintained in follow-ups of up to 15 weeks. In many studies, exercise has also been found to have chronic effects, with a consistent positive relationship between exercise and depression. This includes the potential to reduce symptoms across age groups, health states, race, and socioeconomic status.
It is also important to note that reduction of anxiety and depression after exercise occurs for all types of participants (e.g., male or female, fit or unfit, active or inactive, anxious or non-anxious, healthy or non-healthy, young or older, with or without anxiety disorders, and so on).
So, we know that physical exercise has the ability to reduce anxiety levels and depression symptoms in individuals – but how long does the “tranquilizing” effect of exercise last?
The research of Raglin and Morgan (7) showed that state anxiety was reduced for as long as 24 hours (although it is typically 2–4 hours) after the exercise, while participants in the control rest condition returned to baseline level within 30 minutes. Further research by Breus and O’Connor (8), found that the decline in state anxiety after exercise lasted several hours too.
Longer training programs (sessions conducted over weeks rather than hours or days) are proven to be more effective than shorter ones in producing positive changes in overall psychological well-being. With aerobic exercise, state anxiety and depression have the potential to be reduced with intensities between 40% and 70% of maximum heart rate for at least 30 minutes three to five days per week. Anaerobic exercise such as weightlifting, strength training, etc., appears to have mood-enhancing effects when performed 3 to 5 days per week with 8 to 12 repetitions per major muscle group.
Exercise can be particularly effective for those with high anxiety or depression levels, but it can also reduce anxiety even in those with low anxiety levels in a similar magnitude to the effectiveness of other commonly used treatment methods. In addition, as we mentioned previously, exercise of all durations significantly reduces anxiety, although longer periods (particularly those at moderate intensity) had larger effects.
If you’re struggling with severe anxiety or depression, please consult your GP / health professional to find out more about the potential benefits of exercise.
1. Chang, Y., & Etnier J. (2014). Physical activity and cognitive functioning. In A. Papaioannou D. Hackfort (Eds.), Routledge companion to sport and exercise psychology (pp. 705-719). London, UK: Routledge.
2. Landers, D.M., & Arent, S.M. (2001). Physical activity and mental health. In R. Singer, H. Hausenblas, & C. Janelle (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (2nd ed., pp. 740-765). New York, NY: Wiley.
3. Alderman, B., Brush, C., & Ehmann, P. (2019). Effects of exercise on anxiety and stress-sensitive psychopathology. In M.H. Anshel, T.A. Petrie, & J.A. Steinfeldt (Eds.), APA handbook of sport and exercise psychology: Vol. 2, Exercise psychology (pp. 345-362). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/0000124-018
4. Arent, S., Landers, D., Matt, K., & Etnier, J. (2005). Dose-response and mechanistic issues in the resistance training and affect relationship. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 27, 92-110.
5. Long, B.C. (1984). Aerobic conditioning and stress inoculations: A comparison of stress management intervention. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 8, 517-542.
6. Long, B.C., & Haney, C.J. (1988). Coping strategies for working women: Aerobic exercise and relaxation interventions. Behavior Therapy, 19, 75-83.
7. Raglin, J.S., & Morgan, W.P. (1987). Influence of exercise and “distraction therapy” on state anxiety and blood pressure. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 19, 456-463.
8. Breus, M.J., & O’Connor, P.J. (1998). Exercise-induced anxiolysis: A test of the time-out hypothesis in high-anxious females. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 30, 1107-1112.
Header photo by Gabin Valley
Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology
Robert S. Weinberg and Daniel Gould