Exercise & Mental Health
Exercise is increasingly proclaimed as a cost-effective, natural and highly accessible activity that has both preventative and curative properties in relation to mood states. The evidence linking physical exercise to improved mental health is somewhat mixed, both in terms of rigour and the outcomes. However, the trend suggests that moderate exercise can be considered a viable treatment in its own right for anxiety, depression and the elevation of mood.
Positive Effects of Exercise
Exercise is a useful alternative to people who will not consider, or who have rejected, conventional psychological therapies; it also remains a useful addition to people who have not. The evidence to date suggests that exercise compares favorably with standard forms of psychotherapy.
Exercise seems to have both antidepressant and anxiety reducing effects as well as acting as a buffer against the negative effects of stress. Individuals who exercise at least two or three times a week experience less depression, anger, cynical distrust and stress than those who exercise less frequently or not at all. Those who exercise at least twice a week report higher levels of a ‘sense of coherence’ and stronger feelings of social integration.
Negative Effects of Exercise
Not all anxiety-related disorders respond positively to exercise; agoraphobia is one example. There is also a need for more information about the levels to which exercise needs to be established in order to maintain a therapeutic effect.
Habitual physical activity may have counter-productive effects. Some people become overly dependent on exercise to the point that disturbances in mood and physical health result. Ironically perhaps, the very thing that seems to be associated with the elevation of mood can lead to symptoms that mimic depression. The message here, as with so many other things, is moderation is best.
The Future of Exercise Research
More research is now needed on the role of exercise as a therapy can be used alongside other treatments, and how health professionals might operate within such a context. Given the fact that so many occupational groups appear to actively promote healthy lifestyles, there would appear to be great potential for these groups to actively embrace exercise as part of an holistic approach to treatment.
In a systematic review of Exercise by Prescription, Sorenson (2006) found that most studies conclude favourable results for exercise but that high quality evaluations that are sustainable in everyday general practice are lacking.
There remains a need for further well controlled studies to clarify the mental health benefits of exercise among various populations and to address directly processes underlying the benefits of exercise on mental health. For example, there is scope for a better understanding of how special groups (e.g obese with anxiety and/or depression) benefit from exercise.
Kennard, J (2007) Rehabilitation in Mental Health: a contect for health professionals. International Journal of Therapy & Rehabilitation 14 (12) 527-31