Break a Sweat for your Mental Health

By Lisa Smusz, MS, LPCC

If your New Year’s resolution was to get in shape and join a gym this year you certainly won’t be alone at the treadmill – at least during the next few months. Fitness related resolutions (weight loss and getting fit) were the No. 1 and No. 5 most common resolutions of 2015.[1] Unfortunately, those good intentions often fade fast as 50 percent of new members will quit within the first six months, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

Need a little motivation to keep you on track with your resolution to get more exercise? How’s this: not only will regular exercise improve your physical fitness, research indicates that it can also significantly help depression and other mental health issues like anxiety.

This isn’t just a small temporary boost to your mood we’re talking about. Studies indicate that specific levels of exercise can alleviate depression as much as – or more than – antidepressant medication.[2]


So, what’s the exercise prescription for relieving symptoms of depression and anxiety? According to research[3], your best bet is aerobic exercise, but strength training has shown some benefits as well.

  • If you’re going to do aerobics, you’ll need to get your heart rate up to 50-85 percent of your maximum heart rate 3 – 5 times per week.
  • If you’re doing strength training, you should work both your upper and lower muscle groups, 3 sets of 8 repetitions at 80 percent of the maximum weight you can lift, 3 – 5 times per week.

You should start seeing mental health benefits within four weeks, and should achieve maximum benefit after 10 – 12 weeks of maintaining the routine. Of course, before you make any changes to your mental health treatment plan or begin any new exercise program, you should talk with your doctor.

If your doctor says this type of exercise program isn’t appropriate for you, moving your body and getting gentle, regular physical activity can still be helpful. Combined with other strategies such as stress reduction techniques and getting a minimum of 6 hours of sleep regularly, even small improvements in your physical activity routine can promote better mental and physical health, and that is a resolution worth keeping.


34f0e76Lisa Smusz is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor with more than 15 years of experience operating large-scale mental health projects and has internationally published works on stigma reduction, and interventions for at-risk youth. Ms. Smusz currently heads her own consulting company and is an instructor at California State University, East Bay.



[3] J Clin Psychiatry. 2011 May;72(5):677-84. doi: 10.4088/JCP.10m06743

Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2009 Dec;11(6):466-72.

Clin Trials. 2006;3(3):291-305.

Pedersen, T. (2013). New Guidelines for Using Exercise as an Antidepressant. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 5, 2016, from