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Does Physical Activity Have Positive Effects on the Mind?

Depression and Anxiety

Research suggests that regular physical activity:

  • reduces feelings of mild to moderate depression and anxiety
  • improves mood
  • increases feelings of well-being

Physical activity is not a cure for depression or anxiety. But it may help you manage your symptoms by:

  • giving you a sense of success, which can boost your confidence
  • helping you meet other people
  • taking your mind off your problems

Also, physical activity may help you feel better by:

  • increasing the level of substances in the brain that improve your mood
  • reducing levels of stress hormones

Research suggests that, for some people, physical activity can work as well as an antidepressant in treating major depression. But if you are now taking an antidepressant, do not stop taking it on your own. You should discuss with your doctor how physical activity might fit into your overall treatment plan before making any changes.

Quitting Smoking

As every smoker knows, quitting smoking can be hard to do. Every year, many smokers try to quit but only a few succeed. One research study suggests that vigorous physical activity can help women quit smoking, even women who have been heavy smokers for many years. As an added bonus, vigorous physical activity can also help you gain less weight after you quit.

It is not known for sure how vigorous physical activity might help you quit smoking. One way it might help is by reducing stress, which might reduce your urge to smoke.

Cognitive Decline During Aging

As we age, we sometimes forget things. Maybe we no longer think as quickly as we used to. Experts call this "cognitive decline," where "cognitive" refers to thinking, learning, and memory, as opposed to emotions.

It was once thought that cognitive decline was a normal part of aging. But research now suggests that staying physically active as you get older may slow cognitive decline, at least for a while. Some experts think that physical activity may slow cognitive decline in part by increasing blood flow to the brain. In addition, physical activity may even help new brain cells grow.

Source: Adapted from The Healthy Woman: A Complete Guide for All Ages
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health - 2008

Page last modified or reviewed by on February 3, 2014