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December 10, 2014
by David Porter, MA

Managing Your Mood with Exercise

December 10, 2014 02:55 by David Porter, MA

Working out is a superb way to manage anxiety, depression, and anger. It is also a useful adjunct to manage addiction, PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder), and insomnia. It has been noted that mental health providers are slowly recognizing this, and are advised to include it as part of a treatment plan (Weir, 2011). The exact mechanism by which exercise improves mood is unclear- it may be partly due to increased catecholamines- the brain chemicals serotonin, dopamine, and norephinephrine- which can all elevate mood (Mayo Clinic, 2014). Release of beta-endorphins, the natural opiates produced by the brain are also a likely cause (Mental Health Foundation, 2013).The best results will be yielded by making exercise part of a comprehensive treatment plan. This should include psychotherapy, if indicated, medication, and lifestyle changes such as healthy eating, working out, and proper rest, as well as solid social supports. Some of the psychological problems that can be managed with exercise include:


Depression is much more profound, and qualitatively different than sadness. Depression is also a loss of energy and motivation, inability to concentrate, loss of interest in sex, disturbances in eating and sleeping, hopelessness, suicidal thinking and possibly gestures. Some people also experience physical symptoms- headaches, constipation, joint and muscle aches. If one is depressed, a prominent symptom is lack of energy and motivation. It may be difficult to get up and get started on a physical training program. If this is the case, it may be time to talk to your physician about medication, or ask your therapist about appropriate referral for a medication consult.


Anxiety is a normal emotion that we all experience from time to time. When it is felt almost constantly, and it pervades every area of our lives, causing difficulty with functioning, it becomes a disorder. If anxiety is the issue, which frequently accompanies depression, there may be hesitation to begin an exercise program. Anxiety is often expressed as negative self talk, which in this context might be: I can't do this, other people at the gym will laugh at me because I am out of shape, the neighbors will laugh at me when they see me running, I'm too old for this, my body is already tired and aching. I can't I can't I can't...This will be something to work through with your therapist. Another benefit of exercise for people with anxiety is adaptation to your body's workings. Weir (2011) notes that exercise can be a form of exposure therapy, which is a evidence based therapeutic intervention for anxiety. People who exercise experience sweating, labored breathing, and a rapid heart rate- physiological arousal, People with panic disorder tend to over react to their body's signals, which creates a positive feedback loop; the sensations of physiological arousal produce more physiological arousal, which can cascade into a panic attack. By experiencing these arousal sensations through exercise, they may feel less threatening, and not provoke a panic response.


Anger is also a normal emotion, but it can become excessive. When one is angry almost constantly, and explodes over small, minor provocations, anger becomes pathological. It can result in criminal charges, loss of employment, and loss of connection to family and friends, as well as contributing to cardiovascular problems. Schwarzenegger & Dobbins (1998) noted that our bodies were designed for hard physical work, and when we are sedentary, we are more likely to overreact to small annoyances due to a buildup of tension that needs release. Anger is actually motivating. Anger gives what is sometimes the illusion of power and energy, especially if it is based on collecting injustices, and perceiving oneself as the victim, and not taking responsibility for ones own actions, but blaming others. This is your opportunity to use your anger. Get outside and run. Take out that anger on iron plates and dumbbells instead of others (Miller, 2013). You will feel a wonderful release of tension after. An added benefit is that cardiovascular exercise yields cardioprotective benefits in the long term, making your body more resilient to the effects of anger and stress.


Addiction is the compulsive use of a chemical substance despite adverse consequences, with increased tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms upon cessation of use. A substance can take over one's life, causing one to lose perspective about what is truly important in life, and abandoning previously held moral standards. Life can become unmanageable. In the case of chemical dependency, you have abused your body horridly with drugs and/or alcohol. Step Eight of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) states that the sober man or woman must make a list of all those who were harmed by their drinking and drugging (many people with drug addiction attend AA, as the principles of recovery from chemical dependency are similar- or they go to NA- Narcotics Anonymous, AA's sister organization). Then you must make direct amends to all you those you harmed, unless to do so would cause them further injury. The first person on the amends list must be you. What better way to make amends to your abused body than caring for it through exercise?


PTSD is a specific type of anxiety disorder resulting from a traumatizing event, or series of events. The person no longer feels safe in the world, and is almost constantly vigilant and on-guard for threats. With PTSD, the impression of the world as a safe place is largely gone. You feel vulnerable and exposed. Building up your body is about taking control back, and feeling strong and capable, and therefore less vulnerable in the world. A word of caution here. If the source of trauma was assault, child abuse, molestation, or rape, I have seen people take this to extremes: this is what Sigmund Freud called Reaction Formation- the Never Again Attitude. Never again will I be a victim, and anybody who tries to hurt me will get hurt worse. It is totally understandable for someone who has been victimized to go to great lengths to avoid further victimization- but it can be taken to unhealthy, obsessive levels, and people can actually become aggressive themselves


Insomnia is classified as a sleep disorder, but it is more of a symptom of another disorder. Insomnia, which can be defined as difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking too early, can sometimes be managed through working out. If the cause is not overly complex, a hard workout can relieve tension, and help you relax enough to sleep.

Other Benefits of Regular Exercise

Your appearance will be improved as you lose fat and gain muscle. Your clothes will fit better, and you can experience a renewed self image, improved self esteem, self-confidence (Mental Health Foundation, 2013; Mayo Clinic, 2014), and other people will tend to regard you with more respect. It is exhilarating to be able to move a lot of weight, or to move your body with speed and agility. While seeing changes in your body will take weeks or months, your mental state should be noticeably improved within minutes after just one hard workout session (Weir, 2011). Another benefit is that generally, the better self care you engage in, the less medication you will need, and the better you will respond to therapy and cope with your difficulties. 

Empirical Evidence for Exercise to Manage Mood

Research has shown that people benefit from exercise. A study is cited in the American Psychological Association (APA) Monitor that indicated that exercise would produce antidepressants effects comparable to medication. (Weir, 2011). People who work out regularly have less depression and anxiety (Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 2014).

An Introduction to Working Out

See your physician before starting on any program, especially if you are over 40, are not regularly physically active, or have a pre-existing medical condition or injury. It is also recommended that you seek instruction from a qualified personal trainer.

Options include:

  •  Strength training- lifting weights and calisthenics, or body weight exercises.
  • Cardiovascular training- Running, biking, hiking, dancing, cross-county skiing, snowshoeing, swimming, and rowing.

  • Cross training- a combination of both strength training and cardiovascular training.

Benefits can be derived from as little as an easy mile or two walk. This may be enough to improve your mood. For the very best results, you will have to work hard, and push yourself. A period of very hard exertion, followed by a rest period, is needed for a maximum release of tension , which will make you feel refreshed and relaxed. This is not something you should attempt, unless you have medical clearance for intensive exercise, and you have a baseline of physical fitness.

Workout Challenges:

Here are some fitness goals to get you started. These are challenges to meet as you start working out, to test yourself and push your body.

 Beginner- for people that are new to physical training, or who have not worked out in two months or more, this is a good place to start.

  • An easy walk, over level ground for 1- 3 miles at a brisk pace.

  • An easy bike ride over level ground, for 3-6 miles.

  • Two sets of 10- 15 modified pushups (rest your knees on the ground to reduce the amount of body weight your are pushing).

  • Curl 15-20 lb dumbbells, 10-15 reps with each arm.


Intermediate- for people who are able to complete all of the beginner exercises with minimal to moderate exertion, and who have a baseline level of fitness.

  • Run 3 miles to completion.

  • Run 4 sets of 50 meter sprints with two minutes of rest between each set.

  • Bench press your body weight for three sets of 10.

  • 3 sets of 25 pushups.

  • Curl 30 to 40 lb dumbbells, 10-15 reps with each arm.


Advanced- for people who are already in good shape, who are able to do all of the intermediate exercises with minimal to moderate exertion, and who work out hard on a regular basis.

  • Run 1.5 miles in your best time, followed by a three mile easy walk.

  • Sprint 200 meters x3, walking 200 meters after each sprint.

  • Total of 100 pushups, or crunches, or body weight squats, or dips, or pullups, in as few sets as possible. Stretch before and after.

  • Bench press 1.5 times your body weight 3x


Dietary support

Exercise must be accompanied by the correct fuel and building blocks. You need protein, fats, complex carbohydrates, water, vitamins, and minerals. You should be able to get everything you need from your food, without resorting to supplements. It is also less expensive to eat fresh, unprocessed food, rather than costly supplements, or heavily processed food out of boxes. Protein can be derived from animal sources, such as lean red meat, poultry, fish, and shellfish. Plant source include beans, nuts, and seeds. Carbohydrates should come from plant sources – fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grain bread, cereal, rice and pasta. You need fat- the problem is to many Americans eat too much of the wrong kind. Fat that is liquid at room temperature is generally healthier than fats from animal source which are solid at room temperature. Olives, olive oil, avocados, and nuts and seeds are a good source. You will also need lots of water to replenish fluids lost from sweating.

Rest and Recovery

If you are working out hard, you need some down time. You should be able to do physical activity every day, but this does not mean pushing yourself to the maximum every day. The more intense you exercise, the more rest time you need. Beware of extremes, especially if you are working out as part of recovery from chemical dependency. Addicts do almost everything to extremes. Be vigilant about exercise turning into a behavioral addiction. Feeling compelled to workout every day, without any rest days, or to run or lift when sick or injured, missing responsibilities to work out- these are warning signs of a problem.

Exercise is a very effective way to manage your mood, and several other psychological problems. Research is still underway as to exactly how exercise works to improve mood, and how much intensity is required for substantial benefits.


Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2014). Exercise for Stress and Anxiety. Anxiety and Depression Association of

America. Retrieved August 16, 2014, from:

Mayo Clinic (2014). Depression and Anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms. Mayo Clinic Retrieved August 16, 2014, from:

Mental Health Foundation. (2013). Exercise and Mental Health. Mental Health Foundation. Retrieved August 16, 2014,


Miller, A. (2013). Exercises for Stress & Anger Management. Retrieved August 16, 2014, from:

Schwarzenegger, A, and Dobbins, B. (1998). The New Encyclopedia of modern Bodybuilding. Simon & Schuster: NY.

Weir,K. (2011). The Exercise Effect. Monitor on Psychology. Retrieved August 16, 2014,


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