Sweat It Out For Better Mental Health


By Dr. LA Thoma Gustin

Dr. LA Thoma Gustin / Photo by Ted Ely

Dr. LA Thoma Gustin / Photo by Ted Ely

What if you heard there was a medicine that could possibly help ease your symptoms, was all natural, long-lasting, preventative, and free...would you take it? The answer is probably yes. When it comes to mental health, that medicine is exercise.

My name is Dr. LA Thoma Gustin, and no, I’m not a medical doctor. I’m a doctor of physical therapy. As a physical therapist, I often see patients with physical impairments that go hand-in-hand with psychological ones. A lot of times, it’s chronic pain showing up with depression and anxiety.  

Our bodies are complicated, and we’re constantly investigating the ways the body and mind interact. What we do know, however, is that depression and anxiety can be positively affected by exercise.

The positive benefits of exercise on mental health

While we don’t know exactly how exercise helps reduce depression and anxiety, we do know that it can work for many people. Some of the benefits include:

  • Reduced fatigue

  • Increased self confidence

  • Improved alertness and concentration

  • Improved sleep

  • Increased social interaction

  • Reduced daily stress and anxiety

Not only can exercise have a positive effect on mental health, it can also improve your physical health -- it can boost energy, decrease blood pressure, and protect against heart disease and diabetes. A two-for-one deal!

The effects can be long-lasting

One study showed that adults with depression who took part in a fitness program displayed significant improvements in their depression, anxiety and self esteem than those who did not participate in the fitness program. 

The best part was that the group that exercised maintained many of the gains over the next year, while doing the same or slightly less than they were doing during the fitness program.

Some studies have even shown that people who exercise are less likely to develop depression and anxiety in the first place.

Exercise can be enjoyable

Dr. LA Thoma Gustin / Photo by Maureen Cavanagh

Dr. LA Thoma Gustin / Photo by Maureen Cavanagh


Studies indicate that aerobic exercises (like running) and non-aerobic exercises (like weight lifting) are both effective in reducing symptoms of depression. Everyone is different, so don’t be afraid to follow a different fitness journey than your friend.

Does this mean you get to choose a type of exercise you actually enjoy? The answer is yes! The more you enjoy what you are doing, the more likely you’ll stick with it.

Don’t be intimidated

Many studies have looked at how characteristics of exercise programs (duration, intensity, frequency, and mode) relate to reduction of depression. What did they find? Many parameters don’t seem to matter, including frequency and intensity.

For example, walking 20 minutes three times a week could be just as beneficial in treating depression as running for 30 minutes, six times a week. 

However, the length of program does seem to matter. Longer programs (nine weeks or more) have more lasting effects.

What does this mean for you? Fitness gains aren’t always necessary to see positive mental health benefits. Sometimes the fitness world can be very intimidating. Simply opting for a physically active lifestyle is a great goal.


Start small, and let each little step forward feel like a huge victory. You don’t have to run a marathon, you just have to start moving.


I know what you’re probably thinking after reading this — when you’re depressed or anxious, the last thing you want to do is get up and move, let alone exercise. Gyms can feel crowded and intimidating. You may be constantly comparing yourself to others. Workout classes are expensive. You just want to stay in bed. 

Start small, and let each little step forward feel like a huge victory. You don’t have to run a marathon, you just have to start moving.

Once you get going, even if it’s just a few stretches while laying in bed, your body will start to feel the positive effects of movement. Be proud that you were able to move your body when it didn’t want to move. Allowing yourself to celebrate every step forward can encourage you to keep going -- who knows, you may start the day with a short stretch and end it with a walk around the block.

Setting small achievable goals and finding a partner to help you get motivated are just a few ways to help get over the hump. Walking and running are free. Many online videos are free and can be done in the comfort of your own home. All the tools are at your fingertips, and now is a great time to start exploring them!

Now go forth, and sweat it out for your mental health!

FitnessChris Wood