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Exercise may improve mental health more than medication

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about one in eight people worldwide (cc. 970 million individuals) currently suffer from a mental disorder. These mental health issues cost the world economy $2.5 trillion each year, a number estimated to rise to $6 trillion by 2030.

Although mental issues are mostly treated by medication or psychological/psychiatric counseling, a large review study conducted by researchers at the University of South Australia (UniSA) has recently found that physical activity is 1.5 times more effective than counseling or medications.

By examining 97 reviews and 1,039 trials involving a total of 128,119 participants, the experts discovered that physical activity is highly beneficial for improving symptoms of anxiety, depression, and distress, and that exercise interventions which were 12 weeks or shorter were the most effective in alleviating mental illness symptoms. 

The largest benefits were observed in people with depression, pregnant and postpartum women, people diagnosed with HIV or kidney disease, and healthy individuals. These findings highlight not only the effectiveness of such interventions, but also the speed at which physical activity can make significant mental changes. Thus, physical activity should be prioritized in order to order to better manage the increasing incidence of mental health issues.

“Physical activity is known to help improve mental health. Yet despite the evidence, it has not been widely adopted as a first-choice treatment. Our review shows that physical activity interventions can significantly reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in all clinical populations, with some groups showing even greater signs of improvement,” said study lead author Ben Singh, a postdoctoral research fellow in Health and Human Performance at UniSA.

“Higher intensity exercise had greater improvements for depression and anxiety, while longer durations had smaller effects when compared to short and mid-duration bursts. We also found that all types of physical activity and exercise were beneficial, including aerobic exercise such as walking, resistance training, Pilates, and Yoga. Importantly, the research shows that it doesn’t take much for exercise to make a positive change to your mental health.”

According to senior author Carol Maher, a professor of Population and Digital Health at UniSA, this study is the first to comprehensively evaluate the effects of all types of physical activity on anxiety, depression, and distress in all adult populations.

“Examining these studies as a whole is an effective way to for clinicians to easily understand the body of evidence that supports physical activity in managing mental health disorders. We hope this review will underscore the need for physical activity, including structured exercise interventions, as a mainstay approach for managing depression and anxiety,” she concluded.

The study is published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. 

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer
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