The Psychological Benefits of Exercise

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By Kathryn Rea Smith, PH.D.


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This past Sunday afternoon, I went for a run at Lakeshore Park in Knoxville. It was a beautiful spring day, with temperatures in the high 70’s, low humidity, and a light breeze. As I ran along the park trail, I felt inspired from seeing so many people of all ages engaged in physical activity. People were running, jogging, walking, playing soccer and climbing on the jungle gym. Some were pushing strollers and others were being pulled along by dogs. I especially enjoyed seeing parents walking with their young children. It brought to mind the times my husband and I had dragged our boys to Lakeshore for a walk when they were younger. They usually complained about being made to go but would end up having a good time. Afterwards, we all felt a bit spent, but relaxed and in a better mood than before the walk. Exercise tends to have this effect on people. 

When I was twelve, I took up running because my best friend had joined the middle school track team and I wanted to tag along with her. I ran track that spring and cross–county the following fall and have been running ever since. My initial motivation for running was social, but very soon after I started running on a regular basis I saw there was a powerful connection between exercise and my mood. If I felt down or anxious, I could go for a run and nine times out of ten, I felt better afterwards. I did not need to understand the science of exercise physiology to know that exercise was good for my mind as well as my body. I feel so grateful that I stumbled upon the psychological benefits of exercise at such a young age. Now at 47 I am just as enthusiastic as I was at age 12 because I know I can rely on exercise to help with mood regulation and emotional stability. As someone with a genetic vulnerability to anxiety and depression, I shudder to think about the condition I might be in if exercise were not an important part of my daily life.

…very soon after I started running on a regular basis I saw there was a powerful connection between exercise and my mood.

While the benefits of exercise for physical health are well known to all, there is also a growing body of scientific evidence demonstrating the value of regular physical activity for psychological health and well-being. For instance, research has shown that people who exercise regularly have lower rates of depression and anxiety, indicating exercise may help prevent development of mood and anxiety disorders. For those individuals who are already suffering, exercise may reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression both as a first line treatment and when used as an adjunct to therapy and/or medication. Regular physical activity can decrease stress and improve the quality of one’s sleep. Exercise has also been shown to enhance cognitive functions such as attention, concentration, memory, and learning capacity for children and adults.

My wish is for everyone to experience the psychological benefits of exercise for their overall health and well-being. To that end, I try to support and encourage people I know to find a form of physical activity that fits their lifestyle and personality. While running might be my preferred activity, it’s certainly not for everyone. My husband prefers biking, my mother likes water aerobics, and my father enjoys the machines at the gym. I have one son who likes to run, and another who loves playing basketball. Fortunately, the options for physical activity are almost endless. The important thing is to find something that works for you and to help your children discover what works best for them.

Kathryn Rea Smith, Ph.D. is a private practice psychologist specializing in psychological assessment and parenting consultation. Dr. Smith can be reached at kerea@aol.com.

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