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A recent study in The American Journal of Psychiatrylooked at over 33,000 healthy adults with no existing psychological disorders and found that people who regularly worked out at any intensity were less likely to become depressed. Moreover, researchers noted that if all the participants had exercised for even just one hour a week, 12 percent of future depression cases could be prevented.
"Exercise increases blood flow in the frontal lobe [where emotions are controlled] and boosts production of the 'feel good' chemicals dopamine and serotonin, which might explain the antidepressant effect of moving more," says Rob Dobrenski, Ph.D., a New York-based clinical psychologist. “Plus, people who work out simply feel better because they are an active agent in taking care of themselves.”
Interestingly, the study also looked at anxiety and found that increased activity did not offer protection from that particular mental disorder—results that Dobrenski says are surprising. It could be that physical activity doesn’t help prevent anxiety from developing but is effective in alleviating it. He adds that the physiology of both exercise and anxiety are similar in activating the fight-or-flight response, so activities that down regulate the nervous system could help calm the nerves.