Exercise has mental health benefits, according to major research

  • A new research review published in the British journal of sports medicineinvolving 97 studies and a total of more than 128,000 participants found a significant association between exercise and improvement in depression and anxiety symptoms.
  • Researchers say the results are similar to treatment with counseling and medication, and while people shouldn’t skip those tactics, they believe exercise should feature prominently in mental health treatment and depression prevention plans.

The link between exercise and mental health is 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 fear.

Looking at 97 studies, involving more than 128,000 participants in total, researchers assessed the impact of exercise interventions and found that programs lasting 12 weeks or less reduced most mental health problems. The greatest benefits were seen in those with depression, those who were pregnant or postpartum, and those with HIV or kidney disease.

While researchers found a link between more intense 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 comparable to treatment with counseling and medication, the researchers noted in their conclusions. That’s why they suggest that exercise becomes a mainstay for managing mental disorders, especially depression.

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These results are consistent with previous research that highlighted the link 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 reduced depressive symptoms, which was consistent across countries and in people of all ages, from children to seniors.

These results were so striking that the researchers recommended that psychiatric and medical guidelines promote physical activity as a treatment option and especially for the prevention of depression.

Despite findings like these, it’s important to keep in mind that if they’re needed, counseling and medication shouldn’t be replaced by exercise alone, according to Karin Rosenkranz, MD, an associate professor at the University Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany. However, having exercise in the mix can be a powerful way to increase the effectiveness of those treatments, she shared Runner’s World.

Research she has done on depression and exercise – published in Boundaries in psychiatry—looked at the effects of a three-week exercise program for people diagnosed with major depressive disorder. That study found benefits such as increased playfulness, decreased anxiety, increased social cooperation, and greater motivation. Brain scans also indicated that participants who exercised more saw benefits in neuroplasticity, meaning that activity literally changed 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 by itself is not a cure for depression and should not replace controlled treatment when needed,” Rosenkranz said. “But to prevent depressive symptoms, get better emotional balance, and even improve brain function, it really doesn’t take much activity or very long to see those results.”

Portrait photo of Elizabeth Millard

Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer focusing on health, wellness, fitness and food.

Exercise has mental health benefits, according to major research

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