The Psychological Benefits of Exercise

You need to stay in tune in to the psychological benefits of exercise to enhance their appreciation of exercise and their lifelong commitment to regular physical activity.

I’m sure you have heard comments from your clients and members about how exercise helps them to feel great, and even gets them through the day. Perhaps you feel the same way. While most people start exercising to lose weight or to improve their health or appearance, those who continue to exercise regularly for six months or more often do so because they say exercise makes them feel “good.

Psychological benefits of regular physical activity

Studies have shown that regular exercise is associated with a number of important psychological benefits. Some of these benefits come with several months of regular physical activity, while others are apparent after one workout. Both long- and short-term benefits reinforce the value of regular physical activity.

Long-term benefits include reduced symptoms of chronic stress, anxiety and depression, and improved self-confidence and body image. Sleep quality often improves, as well. Immediate benefits include feeling more energized and less stressed. Ironically, people often say that, after exercise, they feel more alert and more relaxed at the same time.

How exercise causes psychological changes

Many different mechanisms are responsible for the emotional changes that occur with exercise. Exercise that provides a significant physical challenge may cause psychological benefits through changes in neurochemistry, such as changes in the levels of endorphins, serotonin and other neurochemicals in the brain. The exact nature of these chemical changes is not well understood, but animal studies suggest a number of different chemicals are probably involved.

Muscles generally feel more relaxed after a good workout, and reduced muscle tension may lead to positive mood changes, especially feelings of relaxation. Activities that require regular breathing, such as swimming, produce changes in brain wave patterns that are associated with the alert relaxation that also occurs during meditation.

People report improved mood even with low-intensity activities such as archery and bowling. Psychologists believe that physical activity may lead to psychological benefits because it provides a mental distraction from sources of stress, and because it provides a pleasurable experience.

Enjoy the psychological benefits of exercise

Fitness professionals tend to focus on the physical improvements that occur with regular exercise. While these are important, improvements may be relatively small and occur slowly. Since many psychological variables improve after a single workout, why not help clients tune in to these significant changes that can improve their quality of life each and every day?

Educate your clients about the importance of emotional health. As with heart disease, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to depression or stress-related illness. Encourage clients to value good emotional health, and to cultivate a lifestyle that protects it.

You can also encourage clients to include psychological benefits, such as stress reduction, in their training goals. Good stress management is important for behavior change, so if clients are pursuing goals such as weight loss, they should also be practicing good stress-management skills. Exercising regularly will help them both manage stress and lose weight.

Exercise adherence expert Jim Annesi suggests using a questionnaire, such as the Exercise-Induced Feeling Inventory, before and after exercise to monitor changes in psychological variables. This simple scale was developed and tested by researchers Gauvin and Rejeski,3 and is also found in Annesi’s book, Enhancing Exercise Motivation.1 The scale measures changes in four variables: positive engagement (feeling happy or enthusiastic), revitalization (feeling refreshed), tranquility (feeling peaceful or relaxed), and physical exhaustion (feeling fatigued). Measuring emotional health variables helps fitness professionals learn how their clients are feeling after exercise, and to adjust workload to promote more positive benefits. Measuring these variables also helps clients become more aware of the emotional changes that occur with exercise.

Help clients choose activities that they are most likely to find rewarding, and even fun. What activities have they found most enjoyable in the past? What activities appeal to them themost? Do they like to get outdoors? Many people find sunlight and fresh air therapeutic. Would they like to exercise with a friend or family member? Social support improves exercise adherence, and can make it more fun. Or do they like time alone? Some people enjoy a break from other people, and find that break in exercise. Would they like an activity that requires concentration, or one that provides an opportunity for competition?

Clients especially interested in stress management might wish to try a body/mind activity, such as tai chi or yoga. The rhythmic breathing of swimming or running is relaxing to many. Clients in good shape might find fairly intense exercise to be the most beneficial in terms of psychological benefits, but avoid this type of exercise for people who do not tolerate discomfort.

Most of all, encourage clients to do everything they can to make their exercise time enjoyable, and do what you can to make your sessions, classes and fitness center a warm and welcoming experience.


1. Annesi, J.J. Enhancing Exercise Motivation. Leisure Publications Inc.: Los Angeles, Calif., 1996.

2. Brehm, B.A. Maximizing the psychological benefits of physical activity. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal 4(6), Nov./Dec. 2000.

3. Gauvin, L., and W.J. Rejeski. The exercise-induced feeling inventory: Development and initial validation. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology15(4): 403-423, 1993.

Barbara A. Brehm, Ed.D., is professor of exercise and sport studies at Smith College, Northampton, Mass.

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