Written by: Kyle Riley, BSc (hons) Ex Sci, Therapy Co-Founder
Regular exercise is an essential component of maintaining good physical health, but its benefits extend beyond physical fitness alone. Exercise has been linked to improved mental health, including reduced stress, anxiety and depression symptoms, improved mood and quality of life, and better overall wellbeing. Currently, one in seven Australians experience depression in their lifetime and one quarter experience an anxiety condition, and although support-seeking appears to be growing at a rapid rate, it seems that exercise can be a cheap, accessible and effective component of treatment for people living with acute and chronic mental illness.
There is mounting evidence that exercise can have a significant impact on mood and promote positive mental health. Even just one workout a week is known to have great benefits. In fact, the results of the 2018 HUNT study highlighted that 12% of cases of depression could have been prevented by just one hour of exercise a week. An additional review of 39 trials found that exercise was associated with reduced depression symptoms when compared with no treatment and placebo and active control groups. Furthermore, other studies found that the effects of exercise were not different from psychotherapy or antidepressants!!
Physical activity can also protect against developing future mental disorders. A study in The American Journal of Psychiatry found that physical activity can protect against the emergence of depression, regardless of age and geographical region. The research team found consistent evidence based on data from more than 260,000 people that physical activity decreases the odds against depression development by 17%.
While exercise cannot cure mental illness, it can still provide important benefits to overall wellbeing. Aerobic exercise has been shown to lower psychiatric symptoms and improve cognition in people with schizophrenia type disorders. A review of 39 trials found that physical activity interventions had a significant effect on lower depression symptoms and schizophrenia symptoms. Interventions also improved the quality of life in people with mental illness.
Research suggests that three to five 30-45-minute moderate to vigorous exercise sessions per week appear to deliver optimal mental health benefits. High-frequency exercise (3-5 times per week) is better for reducing depressive symptoms than low-frequency exercise (1 time per week). However, it is important to note that more exercise is not always better.
High-intensity exercise regimens are generally more effective than low-intensity regimens (however, those with anxiety may find that extremely high intensity training may increase symptoms in the short term). Importantly, combining or alternating strength/resistance training with cardiovascular/aerobic exercise shows stronger benefits on mental health outcomes than either one alone. Mindfulness-based activities like yoga and tai chi seem to deliver more mental health benefits than walking. Team sports, cycling, and aerobic or gym exercise are the top forms of exercise associated with over 20% fewer “poor mental health” days per month.
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The research shows that there are statistically significant and beneficial links between several types of physical activity and depression, general anxiety, mood, general mental health, quality of life, stress, and well-being. The evidence thus far suggests an effective exercise regimen for depression and anxiety includes both aerobic and resistance training across four to five 30-45 minute sessions each week.
To maximise adherence to an exercise program, supervision by a fitness professional, enjoyment factor and community/culture can also play an important role. More than anything, it is important to remember that it’s not ‘only’ about what type of exercise promotes the ‘best’ response, it’s also about what works for the individual, and that doing something is better than doing nothing at all. Activities such as swimming, walking the dog, jogging while listening to music, riding a bike, gardening, bushwalking, yoga, and weight-lifting can all be beneficial to your mental health.
More than anything, the most important thing is to choose activities you enjoy and can maintain regularly!
American Psychiatric Association. (2010). Practice guideline for the treatment of patients with major depressive disorder. Retrieved from https://psychiatryonline.org/pb/assets/raw/sitewide/practice_guidelines/guidelines/mdd.pdf
Biddle, S. J., & Asare, M. (2011). Physical activity and mental health in children and adolescents: A review of reviews. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 45(11), 886-895. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2011-090185
Beyond Blue. (n.d.). Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.beyondblue.org.au/media/statistics
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Craft, L. L., & Perna, F. M. (2004). The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed. Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 6(3), 104-111.
Harvey, S. B., Øverland, S., Hatch, S. L., Wessely, S., Mykletun, A., & Hotopf, M. (2018). Exercise and the Prevention of Depression: Results of the HUNT Cohort Study. American Journal of Psychiatry, 175(1), 28–36. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.2017.16111223
Mikkelsen, K., Stojanovska, L., Polenakovic, M., & Bosevski, M. (2017). Exercise and Mental Health. Materia Socio Medica, 29(2), 152-156. doi: 10.5455/msm.2017.29.152-156
National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. (2009). Depression: The NICE Guideline on the Treatment and Management of Depression in Adults. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK55340/
Vancampfort, D., Stubbs, B., Mitchell, A. J., De Hert, M., Wampers, M., Ward, P. B., Rosenbaum, S., & Correll, C. U. (2015). Risk of metabolic syndrome and its components in people with schizophrenia and related psychotic disorders, bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis. World Psychiatry, 14(3), 339–347. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20252