Major Research Shows Just How Beneficial Exercise Is for Mental Health

A recent study finds that physical activity can improve symptoms of depression and anxiety.

man running outside, exercise and mental health

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  • A new research review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, involving 97 studies and more than 128,000 total participants, found a significant association between exercise and improvement in depression and anxiety symptoms.
  • Researchers say the results were similar to treatment with counselling and medication and though people shouldn’t skip those tactics, they believe exercise should have a prominent place in mental health treatment and depression prevention plans.

The connection between exercise and mental health has been well documented. And a new research review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine adds more weight to those findings, concluding that even short-term exercise can improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, and distress.

Looking at 97 studies, including more than 128,000 total participants, researchers assessed the influence of exercise interventions and found that programs that lasted 12 weeks or shorter tended to reduce mental health challenges the most. The largest benefits were seen among people with depression, those who were pregnant or postpartum, and people with HIV or kidney disease.

While researchers found an association between higher-intensity exercise and greater improvements in depression and anxiety symptoms, all types of physical activity provided a boost, including resistance training and yoga.

The results are similar to treatment with counselling and medication, the researchers noted in their conclusions. Because of that, they’re suggesting that exercise become a mainstay approach for managing mental health disorders, especially depression.

These results are in line with previous research that highlighted the connection between physical activity and emotional health. For example, a 2019 research review in Current Sports Medicine Reports that included nearly 267,000 participants in 49 studies found that people who exercise regularly showed decreased depressive symptoms, which was consistent across different countries and among people of all ages, from children to seniors.

Those results were so striking the researchers recommended that psychiatric and medical guidelines should include exercise more prominently as a treatment option and especially for depression prevention.

Despite findings like these, it’s important to keep in mind that if they’re needed, counseling and medication shouldn’t be replaced with only exercise, according to Karin Rosenkranz, M.D., associate professor at the University Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany. However, having exercise in the mix may provide a powerful way to increase the efficacy of those treatments, she told Runner’s World.

Research she’s done on depression and exercise—published in Frontiers in Psychiatry—looked at the effects of a three-week exercise program for people who’d been diagnosed with major depressive disorder. That study found benefits like increased playfulness, reduced anxiety, more social cooperation, and greater motivation. Brain scans also indicated that with more exercise, participants saw advantages in neuroplasticity, which means activity was literally changing how their brains worked.

All of these changes can have an effect on depression symptoms, according to Rosenkranz, and they build on each other for better brain health.

“Exercise on its own isn’t a cure for depression and shouldn’t take the place of supervised treatment if that’s needed,” Rosenkranz said. “But for preventing depressive symptoms, getting better emotional balance, and even improving brain function, it really doesn’t take much activity or very long to see those results.”

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