Apply It!

After reading this article, the health and fitness professional should be able to:

• Understand why providing clients with accessible strategies to enhance mental health is important;

• Discuss the vital role of exercise in preventing and alleviating anxiety and depression;

• Recognize the importance of balancing evidence-based exercise prescription with client preferences in accumulating meaningful bouts of physical activity to contribute to good mental well-being.


The effect of exercise on mental health is twofold; it has both cumulative and acute effects. Chronically, it may reduce the risk of developing mood and anxiety disorders. A recent meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies reported that across the life span, individuals who engage in higher levels of physical activity significantly reduce the risk of developing incident depression and major depression compared with those with lower levels of physical activity (4). Specifically, meeting the weekly recommended physical activity levels of 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity was associated with 22% and 21% reduced risk of incident depression in adults and older adults, respectively (4). Physical activity also has been associated with reduced risk of experiencing anxiety for children, adults, and older adults; individuals who report higher physical activity levels are 26% less likely to develop anxiety compared with those who are less active (5). Regular physical activity not only contributes to the prevention of psychological distress but also alleviates enduring episodes of depression and trait anxiety.


In addition to the enduring effects of repeated bouts of exercise, single bouts of exercise can lead to reprieve from acute psychological disturbances immediately. Daily stressors may modify current mood or state anxiety. Fortunately, research indicates that physical activity leads to enhanced mood and anxiety reductions immediately postexercise (11,12). Reductions in anger, confusion, depression, and tension are often experienced after a single bout of exercise (12), and feelings of energy significantly improve (13). This is of particular importance for high-demand work environments that may provoke mood disturbances. Individuals who schedule physical activity throughout a workday or at lunchtime can experience both mood enhancements and cognitive benefits. Observed cognitive benefits immediately postexercise include enhanced memory, processing speed, and executive function (14). These improvements may be facilitated by exercise-induced changes in arousal levels; this, coupled with increased feelings of energy, could lead to greater productivity and time on task at work. As a result, further improvements in anxiety and mood could occur as a result of perceiving oneself as being more productive.