Exercise and Well-Being: A Review of Mental and Physical Health Benefits Associated With Physical Activity

Frank J. Penedo; Jason R. Dahn


Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2005;18(2):189-193. 

In This Article

Mental-Health Benefits of Physical Activity

In addition to the direct physical-health benefits of physical activity, several studies suggest that engaging in physical activity or exercise programs can also benefit emotional well-being. Multiple studies indicate that physical activity improves mood and reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety.[27,28] Individuals diagnosed with major depression undergoing an aerobic-exercise intervention showed significant improvements in depression comparable to participants receiving psychotropic treatment.[29] Moreover, individuals in the aerobic exercise condition had significantly lower relapse rates than participants in the medication group. Other evidence suggests that consistent physical activity may prevent the onset of depression.[2] Furthermore, HRQOL appears to be improved through physical activity by enhancing the experience of well-being and increasing physical functioning in those with poor health.[4,30] In this section, recent studies reporting the mental-health benefits of physical activity are discussed.

Among healthy older adults, resistance training has been associated with improved mood states. McLafferty and colleagues[31*] conducted a study examining the effects of a 24-week resistance training program with three weekly meetings. Following the program, participants reported significant improvements in total mood scores, as well as reductions in confusion, anger and tension. Similarly, physical activity has been reported as a correlate of positive mood among women. In a study evaluating predictors of mood among women who had recently started a walking program, in addition to social support, physical activity was significantly associated with greater positive mood.[32*]

Others have investigated the effects of less conventional physical-activity programs. West and colleagues[33**] evaluated whether alternative physical-activity programs, such as Hatha yoga and African dance, had an effect on psychological well-being. In this study, 69 participants were randomized to either an African dance, a Hatha yoga or a control classroom lecture condition. Results showed that participants randomized to the two physical-activity programs had significant reductions in perceived stress and negative affect. While most prior work evaluating the effects of physical activity on mental health has focused on middle-aged and older populations, recent work has focused on adolescent groups. In a study with a sample consisting of over 4500 adolescents, naturally occurring increases in leisure-time physical activity (i.e. physical activity occurring outside of structured school-based programs) were significantly associated with fewer depressive symptoms over a 2-year period.[34*] The inverse relationship between physical activity and depressive symptoms was independent of possible confounding factors, including SES, gender and alcohol consumption. Collectively, these recent studies suggest that physical activities, including less conventional practices such as African dance, can exert positive mental-health benefits across several populations.

Other studies have evaluated the extent to which physical activity can buffer age-related cognitive declines. Among 766 women aged 70-81 years, higher levels of physical activity were associated with better overall cognitive performance. Women in the highest physical-activity quintile of the sample displayed a 20% lower risk of developing cognitive impairment.[35**] This work is consistent with prior research suggesting that physically active older adults are less likely to develop normative age-related cognitive impairments.

Studies evaluating the benefits of physical activity among specific subgroups that have been traditionally neglected are beginning to emerge. In a study among adults diagnosed with Down's syndrome, participation in a 12-week, 3-days-per-week exercise and health education program was associated with increased exercise self-efficacy, more positive expectations, fewer cognitive and emotional barriers and improved life satisfaction.[36**] Similarly, low-income Hispanic children in the 4th grade randomized to an aerobic-intensity physical-activity program improved cardiovascular fitness, reduced depression and increased self-esteem.[37*]


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