Using Exercise to Enhance Your Mood

Home / Campus / ( Published on 2014-08-12 )

Most of us know that exercise has a definite physiological benefit. Physicians have prescribed exercise as the treatment for a broad range of medical disorders such as cardiovascular disease, hyperlipidemia, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, and diabetes. Other benefits are improved breathing, reduced joint stiffness, and increased physical energy. Yet perhaps not everyone is fully aware of the long-term psychological benefits of exercise.

Mood problems can be present for many different reasons and causes, and they can affect all aspects of our lives, including the workplace. A study by the RAND Corporation found that patients with depression spend more days in bed than those patients with other medical disorders, such as diabetes, arthritis, back or lung problems. Researchers have spent more than 25 years systematically investigating the relationship between exercise and mood problems. They found on volunteers with depression found that "exercise therapy is feasible and is associated with significant therapeutic benefit" particularly if the exercise program is continued over time. They believe that systematic exercise may have a positive psychological benefit, because it seems to increase the development of a sense of personal mastery and positive self-regard. Yet, it can be a challenge to plan, initiate, and maintain an exercise regimen.

Strategies for Establishing an Exercise Program

As with any major undertaking to create change and bring about benefit, a carefully thought out and comprehensive assessment of one’s life circumstances should be established. If possible, seek professional assistance with this task. There are a number of psychotherapists who are specially trained to work with individuals around the issue of formulating an exercise regimen to manage mood problems. Listed below are some steps taken in this highly collaborative endeavor:

  • First, a collaborative assessment of your concerns is identified within the areas of emotions, thoughts, behaviors, interpersonal, social systems, and biological elements. The focus here is to identify your strengths and weaknesses within these categories.
  • The therapist and you have a collaborative discussion of research results regarding the influence of exercise on mood problems. At this point, it is important to be informed about what kind and how much exercise is effective; in addition, it is important to know why people do not start or cannot maintain an exercise routine.
  • The therapist then assists you with determining the high-priority elements within the assessment process. In other words, which of the previously identified concerns will get in the way of—or even end—your exercise program?
  • Then you will have a collaborative discussion about how to develop a few strategies to reduce the most difficult obstacles in establishing an exercise regimen. This discussion focuses on your strengths and clarifies the ways you can use them to maintain your exercise routine.
  • The therapist will ask you to identify your exercise preferences with regard to specific elements. For example—the content (aerobic or non-aerobic), the logistics (at home or at a fitness center), the social (alone or group activity), or structural (music or no music) elements that are most appealing to you are noted.
  • Next, a collaborative exercise plan is written that combines all of the logistical components previously identified which will include establishing a starting date and subsequent review date(s). Depending on your interests and limitations, you can be as creative as you like with your plan.
  • Finally, periodic discussions are scheduled in order to make plan modifications, to review setbacks, and to develop new plans, as needed. This supportive strategy will be critical in assisting you with managing the difficulties or bumps in the road as you progress.

This approach strongly encourages a highly collaborative problem-solving relationship with a therapist which can prove to be a powerful component in the success of enhancing your mood through the medium of exercise. An important consideration is to always consult with your physician prior to implementing a new exercise regimen, especially if you have any pre-existing health conditions.

Establishing a healthy lifestyle can be a challenge; therefore, feel free to contact the UCSF Faculty and Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) for more information or guidance at 415/476-8279 or visit the FSAP website.


  1. Babyak, M. et al, Exercise Treatment for Major Depression: Maintenance of Therapeutic Benefit at Ten Months. Psychosomatic Medicine, 2000, pp. 62, 633-638.
  2. National Institute of Mental Health, 1999.
  3. Pollock, K. M., Exercise in Treating Depression: Broadening the Psychotherapist’s Role. Journal of Clinical Psychology/In Session: Psychotherapy in Practice. 57(11), 2001, pp. 1289-1300.