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Benefits of exercise on mental health

Exercise has been widely acknowledged as a critical component of overall physical health and well-being. Recent research has also begun to highlight the positive impact of regular physical activity on mental health. Studies have shown that exercise can be an effective tool for reducing symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as improving mood and cognitive function (1,2,3,4,5).


Man in athleisure lifts dumbbells above his head during a seated shoulder press exercise.

Stress regulation

One of the key mechanisms by which exercise impacts mental health is through its ability to regulate stress levels. Studies have found that regular physical activity can lead to a decrease in cortisol, a hormone associated with stress response. Additionally, exercise has been found to increase the release of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that contribute to feelings of euphoria and well-being. Together, these changes in hormonal balance can help to reduce feelings of anxiety and tension.


The study "Exercise in the treatment of clinical anxiety in general practice–a systematic review and meta-analysis" by Aylett, Small and Bower (2018) aimed to investigate the effects of exercise on clinical anxiety in general practice. This study conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials that investigated the effects of exercise on anxiety in adults based on 15 studies with a total of 675 patients.


The results of the meta-analysis showed that exercise has a moderate to large effect on anxiety symptoms. The authors concluded that exercise programmes are a viable treatment option for the treatment of anxiety, where high-intensity exercise regimens were found to be more effective than low-intensity regimens (1).


Man in athleisure leans on a straight bar attached to a cable machine and looks down.

Depression management

Exercise has also been found to be an effective strategy for managing symptoms of depression. The study "Exercise as a treatment for depression: a meta-analysis" by Kvam, Kleppe, Nordhus, and Hovland (2016) conducted a meta-analysis of the effects of exercise on depression and included 23 randomized controlled trials involving a total of 977 participants. The results of the meta-analysis showed that exercise is an effective treatment for depression, with a moderate-to-large effect size.


Studies have also found that the combined effects of exercise and anti-depressant medication is a viable treatment for combating depressive symptoms (2,3). Therefore, regular physical activity can lead to improvements in mood and reductions in symptoms of depression. The act of moving the body, in and of itself, can also be a natural mood-booster, which can help to lift the mood of someone who is feeling low.


Cognitive function

In addition to its impact on stress and depression, exercise has also been found to be beneficial for overall cognitive function and can boost brain health. Research has shown that regular physical activity can improve memory, attention, and learning, and protect against age-related cognitive decline.


"The influence of physical fitness and exercise upon cognitive functioning: A meta-analysis" by Petruzzello, Han, and Nowell (1997) aimed to investigate the effects of physical fitness and exercise on cognitive functioning. The study conducted a meta-analysis of studies that investigated the effects of exercise on cognitive functioning in adults and included 134 studies with a total of 1,260 participants. The results of the meta-analysis showed that exercise has a small, positive effect on cognitive functioning.


The study found that long-term, chronic inclusion of an exercise program was best matched for enhanced cognitive function, and acute changes (those found after a single exercise session) had minimal effects (4).


Man and young person grasp hands while in a gym.

Benefits for children

It is also noteworthy that the benefits of exercise on mental health are not limited to adults. Regular physical activity can be beneficial for children and teenagers as well. Studies have found that exercise can help to improve mood and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as improve academic performance and cognitive function in youth.


Biddle and Asare (2011) aimed to investigate the relationship between physical activity and mental health in children and adolescents. The study conducted a systematic review of systematic reviews and meta-analyses that investigated the effects of physical activity on mental health in children and adolescents. The study included 5 reviews for the effect of exercise on depression, 4 for anxiety and 7 for cognitive function for a total of 16 reviews.


The results of the review showed that physical activity is associated with a wide range of positive mental health outcomes in children and adolescents, such as reduced symptoms of anxiety, depression, stress, improved self-esteem, self-worth, mood, and cognitive function (5). In particular, the effects seemed strongest for self-esteem and those who stay physically active suffer less from mental health effects.


Finally, across all studies, high levels of sedentary (sitting) behaviours are associated with poorer mental health versus their physically active counterparts (5).


The results

In summary, the growing body of research on the impact of exercise on mental health highlights the importance of regular physical activity as a tool for promoting mental well-being. Studies have shown that exercise can help to reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as improve mood and cognitive function (1,2,3,4,5).


Additionally, the accessibility of exercise as a tool for improving mental health is a significant advantage, as it can be done in a variety of settings, and by individuals of all ages. As such, incorporating regular physical activity into daily life can be an effective strategy for promoting overall well-being and quality of life.

 

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References

  1. Aylett, E., Small, N., & Bower, P. (2018). Exercise in the treatment of clinical anxiety in general practice–a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC health services research, 18(1), 1-18.

  2. Kvam, S., Kleppe, C. L., Nordhus, I. H., & Hovland, A. (2016). Exercise as a treatment for depression: a meta-analysis. Journal of affective disorders, 202, 67-86.

  3. Josefsson, T., Lindwall, M., & Archer, T. (2014). Physical exercise intervention in depressive disorders: Meta‐analysis and systematic review. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 242), 259-272.

  4. Petruzzello, S. J., Han, M., & Nowell, P. (1997). The influence of physical fitness and exercise upon cognitive functioning: A meta-analysis. JOURNAL (OF SPORT & EXERCISE PSYCHOLOGY, 19, 249-277.

  5. Biddle, S. J., & Asare, M. (2011). Physical activity and mental health in children and adolescents: a review of reviews. British journal of sports medicine, 45(11), 886-895.


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