Exercise and emotional well-being

Posted in Well-being on May 3rd, 2011 by Dr. Kai Syvertsen

New York City Marathon 2005

Greetings and welcome to our blog!

Everyone has probably heard the incessant chatter from self-help TV personalities or anyone on the Oprah Network about the benefits of daily exercise. While I’m not one to hop on the bandwagon of every trend that’s compelling enough for a soundbite on your nightly news, the advice about exercise has merit. Research is very consistent about the benefits of exercise on mental health. I know a lot of you probably have questions about the link between exercise and mental health so here are some answers.

What are the psychological benefits of exercise? Trust me, they’re numerous! Reading through the research literature, I’ve seen articles indicating a correlation between regular exercise and well-being, stress tolerance, and happiness as you age. The more you exercise, the more your body learns to cope with environmental stressors, so exercise can actually decrease your daily experience of stress.  Exercise has also been used as an effective treatment for both depression and anxiety. Exercise can be as effective as either psychotherapy or medication at decreasing depression!  The more a person exercises, the less likely they are to develop dementia. Symptoms of dementia and even Parkinson’s may decrease with exercise. Exercise helps you stay more in the moment and enjoy the world around you. Self concept, mastery, self-efficacy, self-sufficiency and body image also typically improve as you exercise more frequently.

Based on all the benefits of exercise, why do only 30 percent of Americans exercise daily? The main explanation I’ve heard in my practice is lack of time. When exercise isn’t a priority, you won’t find time for it. I would argue that virtually everyone could find time to exercise if it was a higher priority and not seen as an additional stressor in an already hectic life. Instead of “winding down” at the end of a long sedentary day at work by engaging in a sedentary activity like watching television, you can find an enjoyable activity such as walking, swimming, biking, running, rowing, or dancing to relax. You don’t have to be a slave to the gym, as some might have you believe. Exercise can decrease tension, improve your ability to manage stress and elevate your mood.

The way I see it, you don’t have time NOT to exercise.

How much exercise do I need to reap the benefits both psychologically and physically? I don’t think there’s a magic number, but I’ve seen some estimates. The International Society for Sports Psychology suggested 20 to 30 minutes, three times per week. The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports recommends 30 minutes a day five days per week for adults and 60 minutes a day for children. Don’t despair, however, one study found that as little as a daily 10 minute brisk walk can lead to improvements in mood. Whatever you do, just try to move more and sit less!

I don’t just preach about the benefits of exercise, I am a avid follower of my own advice. After a sedentary and generally unhealthy period of about two years in college, I gained a significant amount of weight. I was not only overweight, I was unhappy and experiencing more anxiety than ever in my life. I decided to make a change and began exercising daily. My exercise eventually turned to running and I lost over 50 pounds. Since then, I’ve run more than 15 marathons and my mood has never been better. I don’t claim that exercise has been the sole cause of my improved emotional well-being, but I believe it plays a large role.

So hopefully, this information can serve as the impetus to make time for exercise on a regular basis. I speak from my own experience that exercise can have a profound effect on your mind and body!

Kai Syvertsen, PhD


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