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  • A new study has found that physical activity is highly beneficial in treating depression, anxiety, and psychological distress.
  • High-intensity exercise was the most effective type of exercise for mental health.
  • Positive results were measured in less than 12 weeks.
  • Researchers are recommending exercise as a mainstay in mental health treatment.

A new study has found that physical exercise is highly beneficial for decreasing mental health symptoms. 

With high and growing mental health stats this study could be a positive implementation into treatments. The study was published February in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

According to the World Health Organization, mental health affects 1 in 8 people all over the world. Mental health costs the world economy an estimated $2.5 trillion a year and that cost is expected to rise to $6 trillion by 2030. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the WHO found that the number of people reporting anxiety rose by 26% and cases of major depressive disorder rose by 28%.

Carlo Celotti MSc, CSCS, owner of All In One Strength and Conditioning in Toronto, Ontario, Canada recalls how members shared the detrimental effects on their mental health from lack of access to the gym. 

He said, “We had a surge of new members who all mentioned that their mental health suffered during the pandemic and they wanted to use exercise as a method of improving it.”

Researchers are recommending structured exercise interventions as a key factor in treating mental health conditions.  

Details from the study

The study included 97 reviews of randomized controlled trials. 

These 1,039 trials involved 128,119 participants who increased physical activity over a period of less than 12 weeks. They individuals were then assessed for depression, anxiety, and psychological distress. 

Participants ranged from those with mental health conditions, healthy individuals, and individuals with various chronic diseases. 

The addition of physical activity had higher positive effects on depression, anxiety, and psychological distress than usual care – across all populations.

The greatest benefits were seen by those with depression, pre and postnatal individuals, healthy individuals, people diagnosed with HIV, and kidney disease

All types of physical exercise including walking, pilates, yoga, and resistance training were found to be beneficial.

One type of exercise showed the greatest improvement in mental health symptoms: higher-intensity physical activity.

Can exercise replace counseling or medication? 

It’s important to note that researchers are not suggesting that counseling or medication is irrelevant, they are suggesting that physical activity be a key factor in treatment.

Mental health clinician, Morgan Bailee Boggess McCoy, MSW, CSW who was a clinical research associate at the University of Kentucky is cautious about stating absolutes about any treatment method. 

Boggess McCoy said, “Without downplaying the effectiveness of exercise as an effective treatment method, I don’t think I would go so far as to say it’s the only thing people should try. In my experience, a combination of counseling/talk therapy and a change in lifestyle factors works the best.”

Boggess McCoy believes it comes down to the individual. It’s about listening and evaluating their concerns and recommending exercise if and when it’s right for them.

Best Physical Activity for Mental Health

The study found that short bouts of high-intensity exercise were most effective for decreasing mental health symptoms.

Celotti has noted that several members at his gym credit their exercise regime as having a direct effect on their mental state. A few with alcohol use disorder find exercise helps them remain sober, while a few admitted to contemplating suicide before finding exercise. 

“Not only do we experience a rush of endorphins following short bouts of high-intensity exercise, but we also have a strong sense of accomplishment following them as well,” Celotti said.

He believes high-intensity workouts can often involve large workloads and sometimes very difficult tasks. That sense of accomplishment improves confidence and challenges the notion of what an individual believed they could accomplish.

Duration for benefits

Most gyms, movement methods, and exercise professionals favor a 3-month commitment. 

The study found the most effective results took place in less than 12 weeks. 

Celotti finds the 3-month mark substantial for when most people begin to feel and notice the benefits of exercise. It’s when the body can recover from harder workouts and they’ve developed the capacity to maintain technique under greater intensity. 

The 3-month mark is generally when the body reaches a level where it is being physiologically stressed and is stimulated to change. 

“From a mental health standpoint specifically, once we are able to work out at a greater intensity, the body will release hormones known as endorphins, which help us to feel a sense of euphoria and accomplishment following a workout and does wonders towards battling anxiety, stress, and depression,” Celotti said.

How to get started

Realistically, getting started with exercise or any endeavor, especially when depressed is easier said than done. 

Boggess believes that while physical activity can reduce depression and anxiety and has observed dramatic effects in some patients, she always brings it back to the individual and what’s currently best for them.

She recommends finding something that motivates you. An individual shouldn’t feel pressured to do a certain type of exercise if it’s going to lead to burnout and more stress. 

Boggess asks “what do you want to accomplish? Do you want to reduce the amount of time you spend in bed [or] improve your focus to reduce anxiety? Set smart goals based on your motivator with your therapist to help you stay accountable and on track. Most importantly, don’t push yourself too hard.”

Celotti recommends starting with small steps. Start with something that is easy for you and can easily be built into a routine. It can be 5 or 10 minutes of something that you know you can accomplish. Gradually, once it’s become a routine, you can start to add to it.

Making exercise accessible 

Financial strain, physical ailments, or injury can play a role in whether an individual feels ready to start physical activity. 

Although researchers found high-intensity exercise the most effective, they found any type of physical activity to be beneficial.

An individual with incredible amounts of stress can start with low-intensity exercise and perhaps over time increase that intensity. 

Boggess says “it’s also important to note that doing anything in a routine can help establish stability for someone, which can help with mental health. So, it’s also important to look at the specifics behind recommended exercise routines to determine what’s actually benefiting the person’s mental health the most.”

Addressing physical injury first is key.

“If you are able to work around it, then begin doing exercises that do not aggravate the injury. For example, if you have a shoulder injury, you may very well be able to start a walking program or do lower body exercises such as squats and lunges,” Celotti said. 

When it comes to finances, there are plenty of ways to exercise without spending any, or a lot of, money.

Celotti recommends using the internet and seeking out reputable sources such as professionals with high levels of education, years of experience, and a history of positive results. 

Get Moving

Consult with your therapist or doctor to determine the best form of physical activity for your mental health.

Getting started can be small, short, and measurable.  

When it comes to mental health the best physical activity is going to be up to the individual.