Is Working Out a Form of Therapy?

The notion of exercise as a mood booster is relatively well known, but could those workouts have a more profound impact on your mental well-being?

Two-time Figure Olympia champion Erin Stern believes there is. In a video published on her YouTube channel, Stern compared exercise to psychotherapy, suggesting working out provides many of the same benefits as therapy. She outlined 10 reasons to support her belief. Check out the video below:

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1 & 2. Confidence, Strength, and Self Esteem

Lifting weights or overcoming physical challenges in the gym can provide a sense of accomplishment. Stern opined that conquering these challenges can build confidence in your ability to take on challenges in life outside the gym.

Working out builds strength, which can improve posture and self-esteem. “Something that we don’t always notice with strength gains is that we start carrying ourselves differently,” Stern said. This newfound strength translates into feeling more confident and capable.

The science is there to support that. A Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment study found that “increased physical activity influenced self-esteem directly and indirectly,” as well as body image and perceived physical fitness. (1)

What you accomplish in the gym leeches over into every other aspect of life.

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3. Lift Weights as an Anchor in Difficult Times

The gym can be a safe space that provides routine and stability during hardship. A dedicated space that allows you to focus on your physical and mental well-being can serve as a refuge during emotional distress. That’s what the gym was for Stern that progressed her toward her career as a successful pro bodybuilder.

A study published in the American Public Health Association journal concluded that frequent participation in moderate to vigorous physical activity reduces psychological distress and decreases the likelihood of falling into a high-risk category. (2)

4. Goal Manifestation 

Achieving your fitness goals can unlock potential for success in other areas of life. This sense of accomplishment becomes a pseudo-superpower for chasing ambitions beyond the gym floor. According to the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, setting and achieving challenging goals can enhance self-efficacy. (3)

5. Find Peace Within Your Shadows

Stern suggests that working out can help confront internal negative emotions. Exercise can provide a healthy outlet for expressing and processing difficult emotions. A 2022 review of nine randomized controlled trials concluded that aerobic exercise and resistance training can improve symptoms of depression. (4)

6 & 7. Motivation & Reduces Feelings of Isolation

Being around other people who are working out can motivate you. The energy and enthusiasm of those around you at the gym can be contagious, encouraging you to push yourself to the limits.

Going to the gym can help you feel less isolated, especially if you work from home. The gym can provide a social atmosphere to interact with others with similar interests. Per a 2021 study, beyond providing physical health benefits, group-based physical activity may have the potential to help prevent social isolation and loneliness by improving levels of social connectedness. (5)

8 & 9. Provides Structure & Improves Mood

A workout routine can structure your day and improve your overall productivity. The discipline required to stick to a training regime can fuel a more organized approach to every task.

Exercise releases endorphins and other chemicals in the brain that can improve mood and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Feeling good physically can have a positive impact on mental well-being. (6)

10. Increases Stress Tolerance

Working out can help develop a tolerance for stress. The physical challenges of exercise can train your mind to cope with and manage stressful situations with greater composure.

Frontiers in Psychology study found that a six-week aerobic exercise intervention resulted in significant improvements in self-reported depression, overall perceived stress, and perceived stress. (7)


Zamani Sani SH, Fathirezaie Z, Brand S, et al. Physical activity and self-esteem: testing direct and indirect relationships associated with psychological and physical mechanisms. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2016;12:2617-2625. Published 2016 Oct 12. doi:10.2147/NDT.S116811

Perales F, Pozo-Cruz JD, Pozo-Cruz BD. Impact of physical activity on psychological distress: a prospective analysis of an Australian national sample. Am J Public Health. 2014;104(12):e91-e97. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2014.302169

Bailey RR. Goal Setting and Action Planning for Health Behavior Change. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2017;13(6):615-618. Published 2017 Sep 13. doi:10.1177/1559827617729634

Wang, X., Cai, Z. D., Jiang, W. T., Fang, Y. Y., Sun, W. X., & Wang, X. (2022). Systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of exercise on depression in adolescents. Child and adolescent psychiatry and mental health, 16(1), 16.

Sebastião, E., & Mirda, D. (2021). Group-based physical activity as a means to reduce social isolation and loneliness among older adults. Aging clinical and experimental research, 33(7), 2003–2006.

Lane, A. M., & Lovejoy, D. J. (2001). The effects of exercise on mood changes: the moderating effect of depressed mood. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness, 41(4), 539–545.

Herbert C, Meixner F, Wiebking C, Gilg V. Regular Physical Activity, Short-Term Exercise, Mental Health, and Well-Being Among University Students: The Results of an Online and a Laboratory Study. Front Psychol. 2020;11:509. Published 2020 May 26. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00509

Featured image: @2x_ms_olympia on Instagram

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