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"The literature reported here supports a beneficial effect
of physical activity on relieving symptoms of depression
and anxiety and on improving mood."


Without doubt regular, low impact, aerobic exercise like walking is an under-used, powerful therapeutic tool in helping us to manage stress, anxiety and depression. Research indicates that there are immense benefits to our psychological and physical health when we exercise on a daily basis. Lack of exercise, is one causative factor in the development of clinical depression. Never in the whole of our previous evolutionary span have we exercised less than we do today.

The Allied Dunbar Insurance Fitness Survey on the Nation's exercise habits found only 20% of men and 11% of women take enough exercise.

This lack of exercise plus other factors like a poor diet and chronic stress have made us more vulnerable to suffering psychological health problems like anxiety and depression. The problem is that most people perceive exercise as being lengthy and painful but this isn't so. You do not have to run marathons of 26 miles in order to gain the health benefits and exercise should not be painful, in fact if it is causing pain then you are exercisng too vigorously and need to slow down.

When you are suffering with anxiety/depression exercise may seem the last thing you want to do but research has shown people who forced themselves to exercise found it was one of the best things they did for helping to lessen their anxiety and depression.

Research indicates that exercise can even help you to reduce your risk of developing psychological health problems, so don't wait until you're ill before starting an exercise programme. It's never too late to begin exercising. Research has shown that even if you begin exercising in your 60's, 70's and even 80's and 90's there are beneficial results.


Low impact exercises like walking and swimming are probably the best forms of exercise to take. These supply the benefits without the risks of injuries such as back and knee-joint problems that can occur in high impact exercise. Walking and swimming are relatively cheap, you don't have to pay gym fees and require little in the way of special sports clothing or equipment.


To gain maximum benefits from exercise it has to be carried out on a regular basis. 20 minutes, 3 times a week is the minimum, but ideally 20 minutes a day is best. To achieve this level and regularity it is best to try to incorporate exercise into your daily life - walk to work, use the stairs not lifts or escalators. People often say they don't have the energy to exercise however, if you exercise on a regular basis, this actually increases your energy levels. If fatigue is a problem, then start exercising in small amounts until you slowly build up exercise tolerance, this is especially true for people suffering post viral fatigue syndrome.


Research has indicated that regular exercise has numerous psychological and physiological effects upon our biochemistry. It has been shown to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, reduce blood clotting time so reducing the risk of stroke and heart attack, help the gall bladder to drain, burn up stress hormones, cause muscles to relax, increase serotonin levels, stimulate relaxation response, improve insulin resistance, improve blood cholesterol profile, boost immune function, boost endorphin levels, increase muscle/fat ratio, improve lung function, stabilise blood sugar levels, lower oestrogen levels, lower blood pressure and much, much more.


The use of exercise to help prevent or manage anxiety is a strategy that is greatly under used. Exercise is not a cure all but it can have powerful therapeutic effects. U.K. Clinical Psychologist Dr Kevin Gournay said that exercise is one of the most important of the stress management strategies. Again to obtain the benefits you don't have to do a mass of exercise, just gentle, daily walking can be of great help.

One analysis of 100 studies of 3,000 subjects on the anxiety reducing effects of exercise came to a number of conclusions:-

1. Exercise programmes usually need to exceed 10 weeks before significant changes in long term anxiety occur.

2. Exercise has a tranquillising effect on the brain which can be more potent than many anti-anxiety medications. The anti-anxiety effect of exercise lasts for 4 hours or more.

3. The decrease in muscle tension due to exercise has been shown to be greater than the effects of the tranquilliser drug Meprobamate.


Research indicates that disturbances in the balance of three brain chemicals - Dopamine, Noradrenaline and Serotonin - have been linked as being factors involved in the development of clinical depression and other psychological health problems. Exercise has been shown to boost the anti-depressive effects of these brain chemicals and reduce depression.

Researchers reviewed the data on the role of exercise in combating depression and found that regular exercise helps to relieve depression. In fact exercise is so potent that research has shown it can be as effective as psychotherapy in helping to manage clinical depression. Research published in the British Medical Journal indicated that when a group of hospitalized people suffering clinical depression exercised regularly for nine weeks, their depression scores were significantly lower than a control group who did not exercise.

Since World War II Clinical depression has been increasing and it is thought this is partly due to the fact that we have become more sedentary. Exercise can not only help to treat depression it can also prevent depression. In one study of 1,500 people the odds of being depressed were more than three times higher for people who did not exercise when compared to those who did.

Even the normally conservative US National Institute of Mental Health said that exercise is associated with reduced levels of depression. The greatest improvements are seen in clincally depressed people who exercise frequently for several months.

A study by Dr David Hanraty (a GP in East Sussex) involving the pioneering "Oasis Programme" in which local GPs could write a prescription for exercise to their pregnant patients to be used at the local sports centre, said of the role of exercise in treating depression:

"Exercise is the quickest and most effective way of treating mild depression. We have cut local rates of post natal depression by 50%."

Dr Hanraty said the patients visited the GP 50% less often and their drugs bill fell by 50%.

Research has also indicated that people with clinical depression who exercise regularly have less chance of a future depressive episode than people with depression who do not exercise.


"I don't think there is a single thing in life as
therapeutic as the right kind of an exercise programme
applied over time. But misapplied it can be just
another stressor."
(John Hibbs - Naturopath, "Alternative medicine:
The Definitive Guide")

In order to gain the maximum benefits of exercise and to avoid any potential exercise related injuries it is important to take into account the following considerations:-

1. Always visit your GP for a check-up to make sure you are healthy enough to exercise before starting an exercise programme.

2. Don't exercise if you have a cold, flu or another infection.

3. Don't exercise near main roads or in isolated areas.

4. Don't wear a Walkman.

5. Don't over exercise, over exercise can cause health problems.

6. Always warm-up and cool down before and after exercise.

7. Only exercise till you are slightly out of breath but can still hold a conversation.

8. Asthmatics should take their inhalers with them.

9. Diabetics should take a glucose boosting food with them.

10. Don't exercise after surgery.

11. If you feel pain, discomfort, or breathlessness, stop immediately.

12. Don't practice competitive sports if you suffer stress because competitive sports can increase stress rather than decrease it.

13. Don't use exercise on its own, you may need to combine it with other treatments from your GP.

You have seen that there are a great many benefits from introducing a regular walking programme into your life not only will your psychological health improve but your physical health and disease resistance will improve also. Exercise is one of the most under-used tools we have with many potential benefits to our health, but in the final analysis, it is up to you. You may not feel like exercising at first, but many who have persevered say that they now do not want to stop exercising because it provides them with so much benefit.

Remember to start slowly, the race isn't always won by the swiftest but by those who keep running. Gradually build up your exercise tolerance with your eventual target being 20 - 30 minutes of walking a day. But remember that if you stop exercising you will lose the psychological and physiological health protection benefits that you had originally gained.


The Influence of Exercise on Reducing Stress, Anxiety and Depression


1. British Medical Journal (1985) 291: 109, Quoted in magazine What Docters Don't Tell You, vol 6, no 6, Sept. 1995.

2. Cooper C. Cooper R.D. Eaker L.H. (1988) Living with Stress, Penguin Books.

3. Diamond J (1995) Alternative Medicine: the Definitive Guide, Future Medicine Publishing.

4. Gournay K (1995) Stress Management: a Guide to Coping with Stress, Assett Books.

5. Martin P (1997) Sickening Mind: Brain, Behaviour, Immunity and Disease, Harper Collins

6. McConville B (1996) Beating the Blues, Headline.

7. Nieman D.C. (1998) The Exercise Health Connection, Human Kinetics inc.

8. Payne R (1995) Relaxation Techniques, Churchill Livingstone.

9. Sacks J (1998) Natures Prozac, Simon and Schuster.

10. Snowden L, Humphries M (1992) Fitness Walking, Mainstream Publishing.

11. Sobel D.S. Ornstein R (1996) The Healthy Mind Healing Body Handbook.

12. US Surgeon General's Report (1996) Physical Activity and Health.