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Exercise for mood, stress and anxiety

Updated: Apr 10, 2020

Couple running on the beach

Finding wellbeing in everyday life has become more of a challenge for those who have boarded the speed train. Many within the UK experience low mood resulting from stress, anxiety and depression. According to the Mental Health Foundation, mixed anxiety & depression are the most common mental disorder in Britain, with almost 9% of people meeting criteria for diagnosis. In addition, in any one year, between 8-12% of the population experience depression.

Stress is defined as ‘reaction to various real or perceived stimuli that threaten to disrupt the homeostatic state of the organism’ (Tsatsoulis & Fountoulakis, 2006). Depression is a sad mood and/or a loss of interest in most things accompanied by a set of other symptoms’ (Otto & Smits, 2011). These feelings may be ‘guilt, low energy, concentration problems, disrupted appetite, agitation, or immobility, sleep disruptions, and sometimes suicidal thoughts’ (Otto & Smits, 2011). Prolonged disturbances and prolonged psychological stress can set about chronic stress which may cause excess hormones to be secreted in response to fight-or-flight situations. The negative feedback system, which helps to restore balance in the body is not initiated and instead individuals continue to suffer and spiral towards chronic moodiness.

Exercise allows one’s body to strengthen and buffers against stressors raising one’s sensitivity to stress. Exercise also produces neurotransmitters. Reduced levels in a neurotransmitter serotonin, can maintain depressive moods, but by exercising, serotonin is produced with similar effects to antidepressants used to rebalance neurotransmitter levels (Brooocks, Meyer, Gleiter, Hillmer-Vogel, George, Bartmann & Bandelow, 2001). So how does one integrate exercise into their lifestyles?

Here are some tips to help you focus on getting healthy through exercise, manage your lifestyle better, and improve your mood by exercising more regularly.

Dose Response. Dose response when exercising is important. Don’t overextend yourself, but ensure that you exert yourself just enough to elicit the positive effects. Moderate aerobic exercise is likely to have more favourable effects than lower doses. The US Department of Health and Human Services (2008) highlight that a full dose for improving wellbeing and mood amounts to: 1. Moderate intensity aerobic exercise for minimum 150 minutes every week OR 2. Vigorous intensity aerobic exercise for at least 75 minutes every week.

Moderate and vigorous intensity aerobic exercise can be determined by age and age adjusted maximum heart rate. Take advice from a personal trainer or medical practitioner on your measurement and plan if unsure, and before getting stuck in to activity.

Historical Approach. When setting out an exercise plan, understand what your historical approach to exercise has been. What did you like, dislike, do you prefer exercise in numbers or prefer to work out alone. Do you have support networks? What have been your challenges?

Autotelic experience and value of variation. Make exercise routines, fun, easy, varied and organised to allow for continuance and long-term engagement for everyday lifestyle. Immerse yourself in an activity that not only provides the physiological benefits, but results in a sense of joy and satisfaction. Setting out intrinsically motivated goals will help you stay on track, since they are self directed and filled with personal interest. Keeping exercise varied will also aid in your adherence to your goals and exercise regime by avoiding monotony and boredom.

Avoid zones of low zeal. Avoid zones of low motivation and come up with a plan to combat the zone of low zeal. For instance, rather than come home and slump into the sofa, detour to your activity before you get too comfortable on the sofa. Clock off from work with discipline and allow yourself time to exercise. Instead of heading off to the pub, head to the gym first before stepping out for a drink.

Team Effort. Work out who your support network is and think of team effort. Might joining a club help you to get out and exercise more in a sociable group environment? Or do you have friends who are keen to join you in your workout or activity? Think about whether you need someone to help you with your exercise plan and who might support you in that plan.

Self Coaching. Are you talking yourself out of exercise? Develop an awareness of your thoughts and feelings and use self talk techniques to reframe, counter and re-label some of those negative thoughts. Negative talk leads to negative thoughts and feelings and in turn actions. The negativity depicts a defeatist with a lack of confidence. By being negative you give yourself little chance of following through and your motivation levels will dwindle and you may become anxious, feel frustrated, lack confidence, lose focus and experience feeling low. Use a go-to phrase to energise yourself and positive talk to get you motivated. Key phrases may be ‘lets get physical’ or ‘I’m in the mood for dancing’ derived from tunes that have strong motivating effect and help you get into the right mind-set, refocus your energy and build confidence. Research has shown that high tempo music with strong positive lyrics can increase your energy levels.

Know your body clock and preferences. Get to know your body clock and preferences. Some people prefer exercise first thing in the morning because it energises them for the day ahead, whilst others prefer the midday break to help them balance the pressures of work and refocus their minds for the afternoon. It could be that you’re an evening exerciser, as this may be a way to mentally adjust and leave work behind, closing the door behind to shut off. Recognise who you are and factor this in when structuring an exercise timetable. That’s right! An exercise timetable helps you to focus on your exercise goals and by diarising activities you are helping yourself to adhere to the plan and succeed.

Gradual increase in activity. Gradual increase in activity is the way forward. Don’t scare yourself off from the start with exerting too much pressure on the body and overwhelming yourself. Perhaps start with one low impact activity and gradually build to more vigorous activities a couple times a week over the course of the month and beyond.

Ever heard of goal chaining? This is your key to getting out and off that sofa or out of that bed. Take baby steps towards the goal. Here’s an example. Start out by getting up and into the kitchen for a drink. You’re a little perked up. Next get your gear on which has been strategically placed in view the night before. You’re now dressed and there’s no point of heading into bed, so you may as well get washed up. And suddenly you’re feeling fresh, so you’re happy to see what’s going on outside. The sun hits you, and the warmth gets you strolling. Next you decide you may as well pick up the pace and before you know it you’re on your way along the river or path completing your 5km run. The key is not to start out by focusing on the outcome, but going through steps to achieve your end goal.

Emotional intelligence. Once you’ve got out and done some exercise, reflect on your activity for the day. How did you feel before, during and after. This emotional awareness will help you recognise what’s working for you and validate your hard efforts.

Measurement. Measuring your progress can help you cope and adhere to a plan. It may encourage you to see how far you have come. Buying a pedometer to measure your heart rate and blood pressure will indicate changes in your physiological fitness. Another more simple approach may be to notice that you started out with perhaps 5 minutes of jogging on a treadmill and now can jog for ten minutes without being out of breath. This is positive feedback and tracking it, will help motivate you to continue and adhere to your regime. If things aren’t going to plan, focus on what has gone well and use the feedback to recognise where you may want to pay more attention, or adjust your exercise plan.

Exercise will set you on course towards a healthier and brighter lifestyle. Key to your success is having the motivation. The little steps you take to diversify, goal chain, adjust and reflect on your feelings and emotions, and manage and adapt your thought process, will all help see you succeed in balancing your stress and uplifting your mood. STEP UP AND KEEP IT GOING!


Broocks,A., Meyer, T., Gleiter, C.H., Hillmer-Vogel, U., George, A., Bartmass, U., & Bandelow, B. (2001). Effect of aerobic exercise on behavioural and neuroendocrine responses to metachlorophenylpiperazine and to ipsapirone in untrained healthy subjects. Psychopharmacology (Berl), 155, 234-241.

Otto, M.W. & Smits, J.A.J (2011). Exercise for mood and anxiety: Proven strategies for overcoming depression and enhancing well-being. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Tsatsoulis, A. & Fountoulakis, S. (2006). The protective role of exercise on stress system dysregulation and comorbidities. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1083, 196-213.


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