Exercise as it relates to Disease/Effects of aerobic and anaerobic training on psychological stress

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Worldwide, approximately 450 million people are estimated to be currently suffering from a mental illness with 1 in 4 people affected.[1] Psychological health is an important issue affecting many people and research into its contributing factors should be explored.

It is well known that exercise has a positive effect on mental health and perceived stress.[2] A number of studies have now shown that fit individuals display decreased physiological reactions and a faster rate of recovery from laboratory stressors when compared to unfit (control) subjects.[3] Other research has also explored the possible ameliorating effects of exercise on psychological impacts of naturally occurring stressful life events.[4] Feelings of self-efficacy increase after exercise which may be a crucial factor in improving psychological health.[5] The research conducted by R. Norris on “The effects of aerobic and anaerobic training on fitness, blood pressure, and psychological stress and well-being"[6] was undertaken in order to test the hypothesis that exercise has positive implications for health and well-being.


This research is affiliated with the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham and published by the Journal of Psychosomatic Research in 1989. This study was published over 35 years ago, however it was conducted without bias and strongly demonstrates the link between exercise and psychological stress.

The experiment included 150 male participants aged between 20 and 50 years selected from the police force who participated voluntarily in the study with the knowledge that they would take part in an exercise program. Participants were told they were required to perform various physical and psychological tasks before and after the 10 week program. The experiment aimed to control the clinical trial by equally splitting all participants into different groups (aerobic, anaerobic and control groups) at the time of recruitment. This was done to avoid a selection bias in the various groups.

Regularly monitored aerobic and anaerobic sessions were led by experienced instructors. The participants were required to complete a minimum of 3 sessions per week with at least two being supervised. Each session consisted of a 30 minute workout with a further 5–10 minutes for warm up and cool down exercises. A recommended protocol for aerobic training and anaerobic training was followed.

Prior to the commencement of the 10 week exercise program, all participants were required to complete 3 questionnaires to assess their job stress, life situation and general health. In addition to these assessments, the participants had their blood pressure and heart rate recorded and they performed a timed 1.5 km run to get a baseline recording for the participants physical health. At the end of the 10 week program, these measurements were repeated to observe the improvements to the participants’ health after they had completed the 3 sessions per week program.


After completing the 10 week program, participants undergoing aerobic training demonstrated large changes to their pre-program recorded results, indicating dramatic improvements to well-being and stress. The anaerobic trainers also showed improvements to well-being and stress but to a lesser degree than the aerobic participants. Both groups showed significant improvement when compared to the control group. Both the aerobic and anaerobic groups showed improvements to heart rate and blood pressure after the 10 week program with the aerobic group also showing improvements to the timed run.

The participants who completed the aerobic training program displayed increases to general fitness, they showed improved performance in the timed run and they had a lower resting heart rate with significant reductions in blood pressure. The subjects who underwent anaerobic training also displayed some improvement in fitness with significant reductions to heart rate and lower blood pressure (however to a lesser degree when compared to the aerobic group). The anaerobic group, however, did not show any improvement to their performance in the timed run. The control group showed no improvement over time on any of these measures.

Prior to this experiment, the anaerobic group was not expected to show similar results to the aerobic group however the results of this experiment showed that the different forms of exercise both provided similar improvements to physical and psychological health. Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise programs showed improvements to the participants feelings of well-being and general health, however, aerobic training also showed a reduction in perceived job stress. As expected, the control group showed no improvements to physical health or emotional well-being.

This experiment was accurate and concise, however, there are many variables that have not been examined including possible benefits from improved muscle tone and body image, feelings of achievement after the successful completion of a physically arduous program and a variety of possible group dynamic effects. It is likely that not one single factor is at work here, and that the benefits accruing from fitness programs come from a variety of sources.


This study provides support for the hypothesis that exercise and in particular aerobic exercise, has positive effects on well-being.

The findings appear to be consistent with results from a recently published review paper by Penedo et.al. suggesting that exercise and physical activity are associated with a better quality of life and health outcomes.[7] From this paper and other reviews/sources, further research should be directed towards exercise as an intervention strategy for mental health and well-being.[6] In general, findings from research indicate that exercise is associated with improvements in mental health including mood state and self-esteem, although a causal link has not yet been established.[8] This data suggests that a fairly brief aerobic training program, and to a lesser extent, an anaerobic program of a similar duration, offer substantial psychological and physiological benefits.


  1. .1 Who.int. WHO | Mental health [Internet]. 2015 [cited 25 September 2015]. Available from: http://www.who.int/topics/mental_health/en/
  2. .2 Ströhle A. Physical activity, exercise, depression and anxiety disorders. Journal of Neural Transmission. 2009;116(6):777-784.
  3. 3. Long B. Stress-management interventions: A 15-month follow-up of aerobic conditioning and stress inoculation training. Cognitive Therapy and Research. 1985;9(4):471-478.
  4. .4 De Geus E, van Doornen L, Orlebeke J. Regular exercise and aerobic fitness in relation to psychological make-up and physiological stress reactivity. Psychosomatic Medicine. 1993;55(4):347-363.
  5. .5 McAuley, Edward; Blissmer, Bryan. Self-Efficacy Determinants and Consequences of Physical Activity. Exercises and Sports Sciences Reviews. 2000;28(2).
  6. a b 6. Norris R, Carroll D, Cochrane R. The effects of aerobic and anaerobic training on fitness, blood pressure, and psychological stress and well-being. Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 1990;34(4):367-375.
  7. 7. Penedo F, Dahn J. Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity. Current Opinion in Psychiatry. 2005;18(2):189-193.
  8. 8. Cort L. Exercise, Health and Mental Health - Emerging Relationships Exercise, Health and Mental Health - Emerging Relationships. Nursing Standard. 2006;21(7):30-30.