Written By Arooj Makki

MS Psychology

Government College University Lahore


Physical activity increases not only the quantity of life, but also its quality. The gains from regular physical activity extend to psychological benefits including

  1. A Defense Against Depression
  2. A Reduction of Anxiety
  3. A Buffer Against Stress
  4. A Contributor to Better Cognitive Functioning.


  1. Decreased Depression

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association (APA, 2000) defines a major depressive episode as

“A period of at least 2 weeks during which there is either depressed mood or the loss of interest or pleasure in nearly all activities”

People who exercise regularly are generally less depressed than sedentary people. One possible explanation is that rather than improve mood, exercising may be restricted to healthy people. Depressed people may simply be less motivated to exercise. Exercise is certainly more effective than no treatment and may be comparable to cognitive therapy or antidepressant medication.

The long-term effects of physical activity on depression, however, have not been substantiated. Nevertheless an evaluation of the significance of exercise programs determined that such programs produced not only statistically significant differences but also clinically significant effects.

  1. Reduced Anxiety


Many people report that they exercise to feel more relaxed and less anxious.

Trait Anxiety

It is a general personality characteristic or trait that manifests itself as a more or less constant feeling of dread or uneasiness.


State Anxiety

It is a temporary, affective condition that stems from a specific situation.

Feelings of worry or concern over a final examination or a job interview are examples of state anxiety. Physiological changes such as increased perspiration and heart rate typically accompany this type of anxiety.

How does physical activity reduce anxiety?


One hypothesis is that exercise simply provides a change of pace—a chance to relax and forget one’s troubles. In support of this change-of-pace hypothesis, exercise demonstrated no stronger therapeutic effect than meditation.

Another hypothesis involves changes in brain chemistry. Studies with humans suggest that changes occur in the metabolism of this neurotransmitter after exercise.

Thus, physical activity may reduce anxiety by providing a change of pace, by altering neurotransmitter activity, or through some combination of the two.

  1. Buffer Against Stress


Physical activity relates to psychological well-being, but longer exercise duration does not always lead to continuing increases in feelings of well-being. Thus, even moderate exercise can boost well-being.

Several studies suggest that physical activity helps people deal with stress. Fitness appears to act as a buffer for both physical and psychological stress, individuals who are more fit experience less distress.

Why might fitness reduce feelings of stress?

1. One pathway may involve cardiovascular responses to stress as exercise moderates the increase in blood pressure that accompanies psychological stress.

2. A second pathway may involve immune responses, as the effect of stress on the release of pro- inflammatory cytokines is moderated in fit individuals. Thus, exercise acts to decrease stress, on both a psychological and a physiological level.

Better Cognitive Functioning


Cognitive functioning includes diverse abilities such as the ability to focus attention, the speed of processing new information, and memory. Cognitive functioning also includes executive functioning, which refers to the ability to plan for and successfully pursue goals.

Adults who participate in regular physical activity programs show greater attention, processing speed, memory, and executive functioning than adults who do not participate in physical activity programs. Moreover, physical activity appears to reduce some of the cognitive declines that occur with aging.

Children who are physically fit show better memory performance than those who are less fit; as well as greater volume of the hippocampus, a brain structure that plays an important role in memory.