Exercise has been known to promote several health benefits, such as musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, and cardiorespiratory. What many people don’t know is that exercise may be an effective non drug strategy to mental health disorders.
As many of you know mental health is a growing problem around the world. According to the NIH, one in five Americans will experience a mental health problem every 12 months (1) and the rate of individuals reporting symptoms consistent with major depression in the last 12 months has increased by 63% from 2005 to 2017 in young adults, age 18 to 25 years old (from 8.1 percent to 13.2 percent)(2).
So what can we do about the growing rates of mental health? Psychologists and scientists around the world have offered incredible solutions like relaxation therapies, stress management techniques, clinical counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, pharmaceuticals and now even psychedelics.
How Does Exercise Benefit Mental Health?
As mentioned above exercise can be an effective strategy to stress management and has shown promise with mood disorders such as schizophrenia, anxiety and depression.
Exercise has been advocated by health scientists and doctors for decades as a means to prevent physical health problems like obesity and hypertension. Prescribing exercise for mental health problems is not new. A survey conducted in 1983 highlighted that out of a group of 2,000 primary doctors, 85% of them prescribed exercise as regular treatment to depression (3).
There is no question that there is a growing body of evidence that recognizes the positive effects of exercise on mood states like anxiety, stress and depression through physiological and biochemical mechanisms like endorphins, neurotransmitters and the stress hormone center of the brain, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. In addition, psychological mechanisms may also help influence mood states like the distraction hypothesis- the concept that any organized physical activity is beneficial for your mental health since you are psychologically distracting yourself during the activity and the self-efficacy hypothesis- which in lay terms means creating situation-specific self-confidence. Also, exercise has been shown to reduce inflammation which may contribute to better health outcomes in people suffering from mood disorders (4).
Finally, according to a paper in the Lancet, individuals who exercised had 43.2% fewer days of poor mental health in the past month than individuals who did not exercise. All exercise types were associated with lower mental health burden than not exercising. The largest associations were seen for popular team sports (22.3% lower), cycling (21.6% lower), and aerobic and gym activities (20.1% lower), as well as durations of 45 min and frequencies of sessions of three to five times per week (5).
Exercise is not a silver bullet for mental health, but I think it is safe to say that exercise can be an effective non drug strategy. With more research science should suss out how beneficial exercise is on the treatment of mental health.
What Constitutes as Exercise and How Much?
Although each experiment doesn’t hold the same exercise as a constant, the most common styles of exercise are cardiovascular training like running or cycling and weight training with free weights and machine exercises.
To help guide your own exercise choices we may use the US Government’s Physical Activity guidelines for adults as a resource. Here are their guidelines:
- Adults should prioritize moving more and sitting less throughout the day. Some physical activity is better than no physical activity. Adults who sit less and do some amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity gain health benefits.
- For substantial health benefits, adults should complete a minimum of 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) to 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Preferably, aerobic activity should be spread throughout the week.
- Additional health benefits are gained by engaging in physical activity beyond the equivalent of 300 minutes (5 hours) of moderate-intensity physical activity a week.
- Adults should also complete muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity and that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week, as these activities provide additional health benefits too.
In conclusion, this blog post was designed to help shed light on the benefits of exercise on mental health but more importantly to help provide you with the guidelines needed to get the most out of your exercise routine. My no means is physical activity a cure all, but it may be an effective, non drug means to help manage mental health disorders and stress.
Guest Post – About the Author
Andrew Laux is a health and fitness entrepreneur and Founder of Mat Fitness. Andrew has his undergraduate and graduate degrees in psychology, worked as a collegiate strength and conditioning coach, Director of Operations for boutique fitness gyms, owner of his own mobile training company, and as a consultant for a health and fitness start-up in NYC. Andrew is now spending his time creating better content and better workouts for his online fitness company, Mat Fitness. His mission now is to find out what the best workout is for the modern adult.
- Mental Illness. (2019, February). Retrieved April 27, 2020, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml#part_154785
- American Psychological Association. (2019, March 15). Mental health issues increased significantly in young adults over last decade: Shift may be due in part to rise of digital media, study suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 29, 2020 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/03/190315110908.htm
- Morgan, W. P., & Goldston, S. E. (1976). Exercise and Mental Health. Retrieved April 27, 2020, from https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=Hhe1-tgUBNwC&oi=fnd&pg=PR11&dq=exercise+and+mental+health&ots=BFo5a1-U0-&sig=QxQMZcaI0m6u4d3tvQiI-_hUixg#v=onepage&q=exercise and mental health&f=false
- Mikkelsen, K., Stojanovska, L., Polenakovic, M., Bosevski, M., & Apostolopoulos, V. (2017, September 7). Exercise and mental health. Retrieved April 27, 2020, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0378512217308563
- Chekroud, S., Gueorguieva, R., Gueorguieva, A., Paulus, M., Krumholz, H., Krystal, J & et al. (2018, August 8). Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1·2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: a cross-sectional study. Retrieved April 27, 2020, from https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpsy/article/PIIS2215-0366(18)30227-X/fulltext