Psychological Benefits of Exercise

Physical exercise may be defined as a subset of physical activities that are planned and purposeful attempts to improve health and well-being (Edwards, 2006). This term is used to convey a wide variety of physical activities engaged in to promote well-being including: vigorous activities such as running, swimming, stretching and aerobics as well as less energetic activities such as gardening, golfing, bowling, yoga and other individual or team sports.

The majority of the fitness-health literature according to Morgan (1997) deals with physical health outcomes and there are not many community based studies examining the relationship between physical activities and psychological outcomes. Although this trend is reversing due to the fact that mental health problems are increasing and becoming a primary concern of the Departments of Health in many countries (Ensel & Lin, 2006). Research information There are some scientific studies in this context which can prove to be a meaningful window of exploration in order to discuss the psychological effect of exercising.

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To compare the effects of exercising on emotions of individuals in laboratory and natural environments, faculty of Health and Sport sciences, Kokushikan & Tsukuba university, Japan along with university of Tasmania, Australia conducted experiments (Kerr et al. , 2004) to monitor possible changes in emotions and stress pre-to-post exercise. Recreational as well as competitive runners were the participants in running activities indoors (laboratory) and outdoors (natural environment). Statistical analysis of pre-to-post exercise for recreational group of runners revealed:

  1.  Significant increase in positive emotions irrespective of running conditions
  2.  Significant decrease in negative emotions irrespective of running conditions
  3.  Higher pride scores with natural than laboratory running There can be two ways of looking at psychological changes associated with exercise, according to this study, one involves categorically specifying the psychological changes which includes measuring specific affective states or emotions e. g. , guilt, pride etc. The other is the Dimensional model which relates to broader dimensions of affect based on the assumed inter-relationship between certain affective states or emotions.

This particular study used a third kind of model known as TESI which is believed to encompass desirable qualities of both the approaches mentioned above. It measured affect responses on four scales:

  1.  Total pleasant or total unpleasant emotions
  2. Somatic arousal related or bodily emotions
  3. Individual pleasant and unpleasant emotions: 16 items including eight somatic emotions: relaxation, anxiety, excitement, boredom, placidity, anger, provocation, sullenness and eight transactional emotions: pride, humiliation, modesty, shame, gratitude, resentment, virtue, guilt.
  4.  Bodily stress and external stress (arising from external sources) along with effort stress (expended in trying to cope with bodily and external sources) The concluding remarks of the study were that there was no major impact of exercising environment except for higher pride while doing exercise in natural environment and regardless of the running conditions there were significant decreases in anxiety and shame and significant increases in relaxation and excitement pre-to-post exercise.

Department of psychology, Zululand University, South Africa conducted a study with psychological well-being conceptualized as the positive component of mental health and physical exercise conceptualized as a subject of physical activities aimed at improving health and well-being. It investigated the relationship between regular physical exercise and psychological well-being profile which consisted of well-being components of mood, lifestyle, satisfaction with life, sense of coherence, fortitude, stress management, coping and total well-being score.

Regular exercise was defined as meeting the criteria of exercising for an average of 30 minutes a day at least three times a week. Respondents were required to evaluate their current feelings on a scale with regard to six negative and six positive mood states where negative moods included feeling anxious, depressed, confused, angry, fatigued, stressed and positive moods included feeling energetic, confident, happy, healthy, being in control and strong.

The well-being component was based on 13 items translating into five factors described as comprehensibility, life interest, self efficacy, interpersonal trust and predictability. Sense of coherence was defined as meaningfulness and manageability. Fortitude included three subscales labeled self appraisal, family appraisal and support appraisal. Stress management meant ability to manage and readjustment levels required for the commonly occurring life events for e. g. , death of a relative, marriage or outstanding personal achievement.

The study showed that all the well-being components with the exception of life style were significant predictors of total psychological well-being, with stress management being the most significant predictor followed by fortitude, sense of coherence, satisfaction with life, mood and coping respectively, where coping was measured by noting the reactions to stress. It was also found that whether they were members of health club or not regular exercisers were significantly more psychologically well than irregular exercisers particularly with regards to mood, lifestyle and coping.

The above results were irrespective of the factors taken into consideration in the study like health club affiliation, length of membership, age, gender, home language, years of exercise experience etc. Hence the study concluded that irrespective of above factors, regular exercise can be related for sure to sustained improvement in well-being. Ensel and Lin (2004) study in a paper regarding how physical fitness is associated with decreased distress.

In their study they found that fitness served to buffer the effects of stressors on both psychological and physical distress. In addition physical fitness is associated with psychological resources that help further in coping up from the distress caused. According to the author, the more a person exercises the greater the self esteem, thus in addition to directly deterring distress, physical fitness indirectly deters distress through its effect on levels of psychological resources (for e. g. self esteem, mastery and personal competence) that individuals possess hence play a stress management role. Ginis and Lindwall (2006) talk about the self presentational benefits of exercise and physical activity and its role in moving towards a favorable image. According to Leary & Kowalski, 1990 impression management or self presentation refers to the processes which people attempt to monitor and control the impressions which others form of them. It consists of two discrete processes of impression motivation and impression construction.

The earlier refers to the degree to which people are motivated to control their emotions and later involves choosing an impression and utilizing strategies to convey that impression. Provision of information about peoples’ exercise habits can influence the impression construction process. Hodgins (1992) found that targets described as regular exercisers were rated more favorably on a variety of personality variables than non-exercisers. Regular exercisers were seen as hard working, friendly, brave, happy, confident and sociable.

They may also be seen as more ‘moral’ than non-exercisers showing that exercising was linked towards self-control. The biggest effect was found on variables of lazy/ hard worker and lacking/having self control. Interestingly however targets described as excessive exercisers were shown to benefit only in terms of their ratings of physical fitness and not their personality attributes it was found that people do not generally form positive impressions of excessive exercisers in terms of their nature.

Discussion and Conclusions The studies described above put forward some interesting as well as scientifically proven information regarding exercising as being a major factor affecting the mental state of the person. Exercise induces changes in total psychological status in way of pleasant and unpleasant emotions, somatic and transactional emotions and individual emotions (Kerr et al. , 2004). Regular exercising is associated with significant improvements in total well-being.

As shown by extensive sociologically orientated studies in 1986 by Hayes and Ross (Steve Edwards, 2006) that exercise and good physical health improve psychological well-being expressed in the studies by absence of symptoms of depression and anxiety. Many other studies have clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of physical exercise in reducing stress, anxiety and depression. For e. g. , Sinyor et al. (1983) were able to show that aerobically trained persons were able to recover faster from experimentally induced psychological stress than untrained persons on psychological, biochemical and physiological measures.

Exercise is helpful coping technique due to detoxification of stress related compounds, increased endorphin, increased somatic awareness, outlet of anger and hostility, a form of moving meditation, enhanced feelings of self esteem and self efficacy, periodic solitude and introspection, power of human touch and improvement in sleep, rest and fitness according to Randolfi (Edward, 2006). Health and Nutrition Examination survey (1988) have shown that depression was lower for individuals with moderate or high levels of exercise than for those with low levels.

Risk of depression and levels of depressive symptoms were also found lower for individuals with high level of physical activity in some other studies. According to J. H. Kerr et al (2006) there has been considerable research work initiated on the psychological responses of exercises and the knowledge bank regarding these changes has been gained in recent past. But at the same time much remains unclear about the process involved. Exercising methodologies are being fine tuned regarding decisions concerning choice of exercise mode, choice of exercise environment and psychological measure for the studies.

It has also come out from above studies that exercising levels or intensity as well as environment need to be set at a point which does not put excessive demand on exerciser and at the same time it is somewhat challenging and interesting too otherwise exercising might provoke unpleasant and stressful responses. The exercise psychologists and health advisors require concrete information regarding the exact impact of some factors linked with exercising in order to suggest them to the exercisers for optimum benefit. Hence further research might address the issue of optimal exercise intensity for individual requirements.

In general researchers have emphasized regular non-competitive, activity involving rhythmic abdominal breathing of 20-30 minutes duration in comfortable contents as in Yoga, Tai Chi, aerobic exercises and resistance training to be in general a good form of basic exercising (Edward, 2006). But while discussing the benefits of exercising, consideration has to be given to the fact that the type, intensity, duration and frequency of various forms of exercising have to be tailored to suit the particular exercisers in a well planned exercising programme, especially when utilizing exercise for preventative and corrective health measure.

According to Ensel and Lin (2006) there are still barriers in using exercise in treating mental problems as the potential for exercise to reduce the manifestation of psychological symptoms has not been optimally explored. In spite of the fact that physical fitness deters distress and sedentary persons manifest higher levels of physical and psychological symptomatology, a variety of types of fitness and exercise regimens with varied levels of intensity need to be examined.

Questions still need to be answered through research as to whether it is possible that continuous exercise may create negative effects such that the occasional abstinence from physical activities leading to health problems and mood swings. The mediating effect of psychological resources produced by exercise might be greater for one subset of people than the other like women more than men, a community more than the other or young person differently than the older people (Ensel & Lin). These differences need to be etched out to clearly specify the kind of exercising suitable for that particular group.

Conceptualization of psychological well-being in the literature are very diverse, which is understandable when one considers that it is a transient condition which is multifactorial and factors that define psychological well-being will differ at different ages and in different circumstances. In spite of the existence of above questions it still can be stated without any doubt that physical exercise, particularly of the regular, balanced, moderate, enjoyable type, promotes mental health and well-being for sure.

This does not need to be done in a specific place as the above studies show that the exercisers’ being members of health club did not affect the outcome, rather regular exercising done in any place according to personal choice adds to positive mental resources. The studies show that the benefits are extended not just personally but also socially by helping in the process of self presentational process of individual in the society by making a favorable image. As it is well put by Ensel and Lin ‘In this day and age there is no way to ignore the fitness-well being nexus’