Beyond Physique: How Exercise Relieves Anxiety, Stress, and Depression

Some Background

Fitness doesn’t stop at the gym and strength is more than the number on the squat rack.

We’ve always recognized the value of exercise. Whether at the gym, on the court, or through our favorite sports and recreational activities, people understood the physical benefits of exercise.

Recently, we took it a step further. There’s been a tidal wave of all things health, so much so that it’s become an obsession. There’s always a new diet, a boutique gym, or a specialty health food store catering to whomever is ready to “improve” their life. Naturally, getting carried away is easy.

While our evolving health conscious obsession with nutrition and fitness may lead to diets that are overly restrictive and nutritiously inadequate, and grueling exercise habits that can cause injury, there’s an upside!

As many fitness enthusiasts have discovered, there’s an unexpected benefit to their newfound love for exercise.

Beyond Physique

Almost everyone exercises for the physical benefit, but more and more, people are discovering the mental rewards.

Simultaneously, a growing body of research is recognizing the same connection between exercise and our mental state.

As it turns out, exercise – whether recreational or competitive – has a lasting effect. Specifically, it goes beyond the immediate physical benefit by strengthening our mental fortitude, relieving stress, alleviating depression, building discipline, and raising self-esteem.

Traditionally, the research has concentrated on the obvious; how exercise affects our physical condition. But to explore the mental benefits, science is concentrating more and more on the link between exercise and our psychology.

Real Life Stressors

In 2016, researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology conducted1 a 20 week exercise training program to “assess possible resulting increases in our capabilities to buffer real-life stressors.”

Their findings confirmed a growing sentiment. The authors noted that “exercise appears to be a useful preventive strategy to buffer the effects of stress on the autonomic nervous system, which might result into detrimental health outcomes.”  The study was illuminating in that it showed a clear link.

However, “buffering real life-stressors” doesn’t relay any tangible or concrete benefit. After all, what are real life-stressors? Are there indications of specific benefits?

Depression and Exercise

Forunately, the Psychosomatic Medicine Magazine published a seminal study2 doing exactly that. In the study, the researchers placed subjects under three different conditions to examine a possible link between exercise and depression.

At the conclusion, the authors found that “exercise training condition was more effective than the other two conditions for reducing depression during the first five weeks of training.”

But the positive effects go beyond depression.

Fitness Breeds Discipline

A Macquarie University study3 explored a different idea; can exercise enhance our discipline?

Their findings added another notch in the exercise belt. Specifically, the authors concluded that exercise over a two-month period produced “significant improvements in a wide range of regulatory behaviors.”

As if that weren’t enough, the researchers stated – in an almost effusive tone – that “nearly every major personal and social problem has some degree of regulatory failure. Hence, the finding that exercise can improve the capacity for self-regulation is valid and has vast practical importance.”

Anger and Anxiety

An earlier study4 from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute examined the correlation between fitness and other mental variables, like anxiety and anger. The findings echoed the generally positive consensus across the medical field.

After conducting a maximal treadmill exercise test, researchers divided 62 men into ‘highly fit’ and ‘less fit’ groups.

Afterward, they administered “several psychological and physiological variables,” and concluded that “fit subjects found themselves to be less anxious and less angry than less fit participants.”


Fitness is at the same time a broad and subjective concept. There is a variety of ways to get fit and a multitude of fitness levels. Hence, what one person may consider as fitness, may not be sufficient for someone else.

But any form of exercise – no matter how physically stimulating – benefits one group particularly well; children.

Kids experience some of the same challenges that adults do, but without the life experience that makes tackling them easier.

As a result, children experience anxiety, stress, and low self-esteem. Luckily, recent findings show that exercise can allay the worries.

A Norwegian Directorate for Health and Social Affairs study5 indicated that “exercise has positive short-term effects on self-esteem in children and young people.” Further, the meta-analyses concluded that “exercise may be an important measure in improving children’s self-esteem.”

Another study6, University of Birmingham researchers examined the relationship between high intensity exercise and a child’s wellbeing.

Keeping with the theme, the authors provided encouraging results, stating; “this experiment provides evidence to suggest that in an adolescent population, high intensity aerobic exercise has positive effects on well-being.”

There are Limits However

Everyday experience and research have been positive. However, we shouldn’t take it as a blanket approval to get obsessive over exercise. We want to get better, not injured.

And injury isn’t the only reason to moderate exercise. For all of the mental benefits that the aforementioned studies displayed, there are just as many lurking limitations.

For example, Vrije Universiteit conducted a study7 which prominently displayed the limits of the exercise and mental health connection.

The researchers found that regular exercise does not influence psychological make-up to the point of preventing stress-related disease.

So how can we reconcile that with all the positive research mentioned above?

One Possible Explanation

One explanation is that short term exercise doesn’t prevent diseases that accumulate over years. Instead, physical activity excels at alleviating stress today. Luckily, immediate relief is the kind we crave most.

To expound on the notion, it seems that all the studies examined short-term anxiety, stress, and depression relief. Similarly, researchers note a boost in self-esteem and well-being over the short-term.

With so much effort concentrated on short-term results, it’s no wonder we don’t have any idea of long-term benefits.

But how do you measure something as loosely defined as well being over the long term? Understanding the direct link between exercise and someone’s mental state requires eliminating any other influences that may distort the results.

But life doesn’t – and shouldn’t – let that happen. Unless we carry out the experiment in isolation, it’s impossible to determine what effect exercise alone has a variety of life experiences will play their own part and alter the mental state.

Tainted Data?

Further, attempting to quantify intangible conditions like anxiety and stress is more difficult than measuring more physical conditions like heart disease.

We detect physical conditions by a simple blood test or MRI, but we measure mental conditions through self-reported feedback.

This difference makes it difficult to conduct studies and attain concrete results.


Fitness means different things to different people – but experience and research have taught us that there’s at least some consensus. Namely, it improves well being as a whole.

So whatever the data says, try it for your yourself. You don’t have to compete in a marathon, but you do have to tackle life and all that comes with it. So why not make the journey easier, why not sprinkle in some exercise and make the process more enjoyable? You have nothing to lose.



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