literature review and application of exercise and psychological well being

Over the past several years, the relationship between exercise and psychological well-being has been an important topic of research. Physical activity or exercise is defined as an activity requiring physical effort, carried out specially to sustain or improve mental health and fitness. There are six dimensions that make up well-being. First, is self-acceptance, which is the positive views of one’s self. Second, there is positive relations with others, which includes trusting, caring, and empathetic relationships. Next, there is autonomy, which is self-determined with intrinsic motivation and self-referenced standards. Fourth, there is environmental mastery, which is the effective mastery of the environment to fulfill personal values. Fifth is personal growth, which is the sense of development and self-fulfillment over time. Finally, there is purpose in life, which is directed toward purposeful goals for living. Exercise seems to have a positive effect on this psychological well-being. It cannot be stated conclusively that exercise causes or produces a change in mood state, rather, exercise only appears to be associated with positive changes in mood states and the reduction in anxiety and depression.

In the United States, the most common disorders are anxiety and depression, with anxiety affecting 17% and depression affecting 11% in people ages 15 to 54. Lifetime prevalence rates are about 25% for anxiety disorders and 20% for depression (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). The World Health Organization (WHO) has projected that depression will be the second leading cause of death and disability by 2020, only behind cardiovascular disease (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). Typically, people deal with these mood disturbances with psychological counseling, pharmacotherapy, or both. More individuals are now also looking to exercise in order to improve their psychological well-being. Research has shown that physical activity enhances feelings of well-being by reducing anxiety and depression and increasing vigor (Weinberg & Gould, 2015).

The relationship between exercise and psychological health is both positive and negative. There is a positive correlation between exercise and self-esteem, self-efficacy, psychological well-being, and cognitive functioning (Scully, Kremer, Meade, Graham, & Dudgeon, 1998). The negative correlation exists exercise and anxiety, stress, and depression. These relationships can be used to support the general benefits of exercise; however, it does not help with creating practical guidelines on how exercise may be used to alleviate particular symptoms and which forms of exercise are likely to be most useful in which circumstances (Scully et al.,1998).

Anxiety and depression are the mental health problems that have received the most attention. Millions of Americans have anxiety and depression but not all of them have psychopathological states. For those that only deal with subjective distress, regular exercise appears to have some therapeutic value in reducing feelings of anxiety and depression. The effects of exercise on anxiety and depression can be acute, which refers to immediate and possibly temporary effects arising from a single bout of exercise, or chronic, or long-term effects. (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). Research on the chronic effects of exercise has focused on changes over time in both anxiety and depression. Most of this research on the relationship between exercise and psychological well-being has used aerobic exercise (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). Research has shown that high-intensity aerobic activity is not absolutely necessary to produce positive effects as once believed; activities such as weight training, yoga, and other nonaerobic exercises have produced positive benefits for psychological well-being (Weinberg & Gould, 2015).

Studies of how exercise influences the reduction of anxiety typically focus on the short-term effects. Chronic effects studies on exercise have programs that usually last 2 to 4 months, with two to four exercises per month. In two studies (Long, 1984; Long & Haney, 1988), anxiety reduction techniques, such as progressive relaxation and stress inoculation, were compared while jogging was used as a stress management intervention. In each study, the jogging and stress management groups showed significant decreases in state anxiety over the course of the period of intervention when compared with the control participants on the wait list. These exhibited decreases in state anxiety were maintained at the 15-week follow-ups (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). The research on the acute effects of exercise has concentrated on reducing state anxiety. State anxiety is a temporary, ever-changing emotional state of subjective, consciously perceived feelings of apprehension and tension associated with activation of the autonomic nervous system (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). Studies have shown that aerobic exercise resulted in lowered state anxiety and higher tranquility scores and has shown that moderate-intensity exercise produced the greatest positive effects in affective responses. Exercise at or 5% below lactate threshold produces the maximal affective during the task and lasts for up to 30 minutes after (Markowitz & Arnold, 2010). Meanwhile, exercise that is above the lactate threshold is able to produce affective improvements only 30 minutes after completing the task and worsens the affect during the task (Markowitz & Arnold, 2010). In order to continue exercise adherence, it can be helpful for people to know what psychological changes that can be expected at each intensity so that they can choose appropriate for what works for them.

There have been several of reviews and studies conducted that have come to the general consensus about the positive effects of exercise in reducing both acute and chronic anxiety. Some of the findings are as follows. The longer training programs (weeks rather than hours or days) are more effective than the shorter ones in producing positive effective changes in well-being. Exercise intensities between 30% and 70% of maximal heart for aerobic exercise have shown the best reductions in state anxiety and depression (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). A lower range of 30%-50% of maximal heart rate is necessary for mood-enhancing effects for anaerobic exercise (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). Exercise training reduces anxiety for people with low anxiety, but is more effective for people with elevated levels of anxiety (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). Exercise has shown effects on reduced anxiety, regardless of intensity, duration, or type and occurs for all types of participants, but the largest effects were found with 30 minutes of moderate to intense exercise (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). State anxiety returns to pre-exercise levels within 24 hours, even as quickly as 4-6 hours (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). While most studies have shown that aerobic activity is more beneficial, a few studies have shown that non-aerobic activities, such as strength and flexibility training, have actually shown slight increases in anxiety (Scully, et al.,1998).

Depression is commonly treated with prescription drugs or therapy, but recently it has been found that exercise is an effective alternative means for relieving depression. Typically, patients with clinical depression tend to be physically sedentary and are characterized by a reduced physical work capacity when compared to the general population (Scully, et al.,1998). Studies have shown that the frequency of exercise might be important in relieving depressive symptoms, such as exercising three to five times per week instead of once a week (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). It was also found that physical activity interventions were successful in reducing depression in adolescents (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). From these results, it can be shown that exercise precedes changes in depression. Exercise is associated with, but may not cause, changes in depression. Studies have found that the positive effects of exercise are seen across age groups, health status, race, socioeconomic status, and sex (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). Exercise is as effective as psychotherapy and produces larger antidepressant effects when the training program lasts at least 9 weeks (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). Fitness levels do not matter, results can still be found with exercise and both aerobic and anaerobic exercise are associated with reductions in depression (Weinberg & Gould, 2015).

Mood changes have been studied to show that exercise is related to positive changes in mood state. Psychologists rate exercise as the most effective technique for changing a bad mood and individuals are more likely to utilize exercise to energize themselves over another technique (Thayer, Newman, & McClain, 1994). It has also been concluded by several studies that physical activity is positively related to positive mood, general well-being, and only occasional symptoms of depression and anxiety; it has also been found that exercise is related to decreased fatigue and anger and increased energy, alertness, clear thinking, vigor, and increased sense of well-being (Thayer, Newman, & McClain, 1994). With just as little as 10 minutes of moderate exercises, mood has been shown to increase positivity and different varieties of exercise such as weight training or tai chi have helped to improve anger, resentment, tension, and anxiety (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). Most importantly, mood was improved with exercise regardless of the amount of negative and positive events in a given day and increasing the choice of exercise seemed to be related to exercisers scoring lower on negative affect (Weinberg & Gould, 2015).

Certain types of exercise with certain levels of intensity, duration, and frequency are recommended for positive mood changes. Although most research supports aerobic exercise over anaerobic, the most recent research supports that either aerobic or anaerobic can be effective. Rhythmic abdominal breathing is important and needs to be generated by doing exercises such as tai chi, yoga, walking, running, cycling, or swimming (Berger & Tobar, 2007). Research has also found that the absence of competition enhances psychological well-being; competition can produce overtraining, increase pressure to win, and social evaluation (Berger & Tobar, 2007). When there is no competition, individuals can focus on enjoying an activity instead. Predictable activities, such as golf or swimming are self-paced activities that allow individuals to tune out the environment and enjoy the activity without the likelihood of unexpected events occurring. Running or walking provide repetitive movements that can be rhythmic to individuals and can encourage creative thinking or introspect during the event and can also free the mind and allow it to focus on other issues (Berger & Tobar, 2007). The most critical component of exercise is that it is enjoyable because research has shown that enjoyment is related to increases in positive affect, so if the activity is enjoyable, individuals are more likely to keep exercising over a long period of time (Berger & Tobar, 2007).

There have been several hypotheses as to why and how exercise enhances well-being, both psychological and physiological. There is no primary hypothesis to support why these positive changes. Most likely, the positive changes in psychological well-being can be attributed to a combination of psychological and physiological mechanism. There are several physiological and psychological mechanisms that may account for the positive effects that exercise has on psychological well-being. Some psychological explanations include that it enhances feelings of control and feelings of competency and self-efficacy (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). It also allows for positive social interactions, improves self-concept and self-esteem, and it gives individuals opportunities to have fun and enjoy themselves (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). Some physiological mechanisms that may account for these positive changes include an increase in cerebral blood flow, changes in brain neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine or endorphins, and reductions in muscle changes (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). Increases in maximal oxygen consumption and delivery of oxygen to cerebral tissues, structural changes in the brain, and increase in serum concentrations of endocannabinoid receptors may also be some physiological explanations for the positive effects of exercise on an individual’s psychological well-being (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). There are also several psychological benefits of exercise for individuals. Exercise increases academic performance, assertiveness, confidence, emotional stability, and intellectual functioning (Taylor, Sallis, & Needle, 1985). Exercise also increases internal locus of control, perception, memory, positive body image, self-control, sexual satisfaction, and work efficiency (Taylor, Sallis, & Needle, 1985). Exercise decreases absenteeism from work, alcohol abuse, anger, anxiety, confusion and depression (Taylor, Sallis, & Needle, 1985). Exercise also decreases headaches, hostility, phobias, psychotic behavior, tension, Type A behavior, and work errors(Taylor, Sallis, & Needle, 1985).


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