Topic Overview

Exercise is about more than keeping
in shape. It also can help with your emotional and mental health. Exercise can
help you improve your self-esteem, keep your mind off problems, and give you a
sense of control. In general, people who are fit have less
depression, and stress than people who are not

Research suggests that exercise
can help specific mental health problems. Exercise may help prevent depression
from coming back (relapse) and improve symptoms of mild
depression.footnote 1

Be safe while you exercise

Moderate exercise is safe
for most people, but it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor before increasing
your activity. Anyone age 65 or older should talk with a doctor before

  • Start slowly, and gradually increase how much
    you exercise.
  • Stop exercising if you have severe pain, especially
    chest pain, or severe problems breathing. Talk with your doctor about these
  • People who are likely to have high anxiety or panic may
    have an episode during exercise because of the buildup of certain body
    chemicals (such as lactic acid) from exercise. If you have any problems during
    exercise, talk with your doctor.

Tips for being active

It can be hard to be active
when you feel depressed or anxious or have a mental health problem. But
activity can help you feel better, so do your best to find a way to be active.
It’s fine to start with small steps. You can build up from a few minutes a

  • Don’t overdo it. Start with simple exercises,
    such as walking, bicycling, swimming, or jogging.
  • Warm up your
    muscles for about 5 minutes before you start exercising. To do this, you can
    walk, slowly move your arms and legs, or do simple muscle stretches.
  • Use the talk-sing test to see whether you’re exercising at the
    right pace.

    • If you can talk during exercise, you’re
      doing fine.
    • If you can sing during exercise, you can exercise a
      little faster or harder.
    • If you are not able to talk, you’re
      probably exercising too hard. Slow down a bit.
  • Cool down for 5 to 10 minutes after you exercise.
    It’s okay to do some stretching exercises during cooldown.
  • Drink
    water before, during, and after exercise.
  • You can make daily activities part of your exercise
    program. You can:

    • Walk to work or to do
    • Push a lawn mower, rake leaves, or shovel
    • Vacuum or sweep.
    • Play actively with your
      children, or walk the dog.

Do your best to slowly work up to
moderate activity for at least 2½ hours a week.
Moderate activity means things like brisk walking, brisk cycling, or shooting
baskets. But any activities-including daily chores-that raise your
heart rate can be included. Find a pace that is
comfortable. You can be active in blocks of 10 minutes or more throughout your
day and week.

If you have problems exercising on your own, ask
someone to exercise with you or join an exercise group or health club.

For more information, see the topic Fitness: Getting and Staying Active.

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  1. Wiles NJ, et al. (2007). Physical activity and common mental disorders: Results from the Caerphilly study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 165(8): 946-954.


ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD – Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson, MD – Internal Medicine
Adam Husney, MD – Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Christine R. Maldonado, PhD – Behavioral Health

Current as ofMarch 13, 2017