The world is currently in the grip of a mental health crisis, with millions of people reporting depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. According to recent estimates, almost half of all Australians will experience a mental health disorder at some point in their lives.
Mental health disorders are costly to both the individual and society, with depression and anxiety being among the leading causes of health-related disease burden. The COVID pandemic is exacerbating the situation, with a significant increase in rates of psychological distress affecting a third of people.
While traditional treatments such as therapy and medication can be effective, our new research highlights the importance of exercise in managing these conditions.
Our recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine reviewed over 1,000 research trials examining the effects of physical activity on depression, anxiety and psychological distress. It has shown that exercise is an effective way to treat mental health issues – and can be even more effective than medication or counselling.
Harder, faster, stronger
We examined 97 review articles, which involved 1039 trials and 128,119 participants. We found that doing 150 minutes each week of various types of physical activity (such as brisk walking, lifting weights, and doing yoga) significantly reduced depression, anxiety, and psychological distress, compared to usual care (such as medication).
The greatest improvements (as reported by participants) were seen in people with depression, HIV, kidney disease, pregnant and postpartum women, and healthy people, although benefits evident were observed for all populations.
We have found that the higher the intensity of the exercise, the more beneficial it is. For example, walking at a brisk pace, instead of walking at the usual pace. And exercising for six to 12 weeks has the greatest benefits, rather than shorter periods. Longer term exercise is important to maintain improved mental health.
How much more efficient?
When comparing the magnitude of the benefits of exercise to other common treatments for mental health disorders from previous systematic reviews, our results suggest that exercise is approximately 1.5 times more effective than medication or cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Additionally, exercise has additional benefits over medication, such as lower cost, fewer side effects, and additional physical health benefits, such as healthier body weight, better cardiovascular health, and bone and cognitive benefits.
why it works
Exercise is thought to impact mental health through multiple pathways, and with both short- and long-term effects. Immediately after exercise, endorphins and dopamine are released in the brain.
In the short term, it helps improve mood and buffer stress. Over the long term, the release of neurotransmitters in response to exercise promotes changes in the brain that help with mood and cognition, decrease inflammation, and boost immune function, all of which influence our brain function and health. mental.
Regular exercise can improve sleep, which plays a vital role in depression and anxiety. It also has psychological benefits, such as increased self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment, all of which are beneficial for people struggling with depression.
No such “alternative” treatment
The results underscore the crucial role of exercise in managing depression, anxiety and psychological distress.
Some clinical guidelines already recognize the role of exercise – for example, Australian and New Zealand clinical guidelines suggest medication, psychotherapy and lifestyle changes such as exercise.
However, other leading bodies, such as the American Psychological Association Clinical Practice Guidelines, focus solely on medication and psychotherapy, and classify exercise as an “alternative” treatment – in the same category as treatments such as acupuncture.
Although the label “alternative” can mean a lot of things when it comes to treatment, it tends to suggest that it lies outside of conventional medicine or is not based on clear evidence. None of these things are true in the case of exercise for mental health.
Even in Australia, medication and psychotherapy tend to be more commonly prescribed than exercise. This may be because exercise is difficult to prescribe and monitor in a clinical setting. And patients may be resistant because they feel low in energy or motivation.
But don’t “do it alone”
It is important to note that while exercise can be an effective tool for managing mental health issues, people with a mental health issue should work with a medical professional to develop a comprehensive treatment plan – rather than going it alone with a new exercise regimen.
A treatment plan may include a combination of lifestyle approaches, such as regular exercise, a balanced diet, and socializing, as well as treatments such as psychotherapy and medication.
But exercise shouldn’t be seen as a “nice to have” option. It’s a powerful and accessible tool for managing mental health issues – and the best part is that it’s free and comes with lots of additional health benefits.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.