PARIS: Research is unanimous in concluding that exercise can have a positive effect on mental health conditions, and may even – in certain cases – prove more effective than certain treatments and drugs.
In conjunction with Brain Awareness Week from March 13-19 – the global campaign to foster public enthusiasm and support for brain science – here’s a look at the numerous benefits of exercise in tackling stress, anxiety and even psychological distress.
A major public health issue, mental health is central to authorities’ concerns worldwide, to the point of being viewed as the scourge of our times.
In 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that one person in eight has at least one mental health disorder, i.e. no less than 970 million people worldwide.
And that’s without considering the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which could be at the origin of a considerable increase – of some 26-28% – of the number of people affected, although a recent study downplays the pandemic’s impact on mental health.
The conflict in Ukraine, the economic crisis, climate change and increased financial insecurity all contribute to the deterioration of mental health among global populations.
This observation requires the bolstering of support and care in this area, as well as prevention.
And physical activity could greatly contribute to tackling many mental health conditions, a theory supported by the scientific community and health authorities.
Less than a month ago, a report from the WHO and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported a rise in physical inactivity and insufficient activity levels in the European Union, stating that at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week could prevent 11.5 million new cases of noncommunicable diseases by 2050, including depression.
“Regular physical activity is one of the most important things people can do for a healthy life. Not only does it significantly reduce the risk of numerous noncommunicable diseases, but it also improves mental health and increases well-being,” says Dr Kremlin Wickramasinghe, ad interim Head of the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases.
The positive effects of exercise
The most recent study on the subject was conducted by researchers from the University of South Australia (UniSA) who studied the impact of physical activity on mental health disorders.
Published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM), their research is based on 97 records, 1,039 studies, and more than 128,000 participants, and suggests that exercise, whether it is yoga, brisk walking, fitness, or something else, is beneficial in improving symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress.
While the type of physical activity is of little importance in terms of the impact it can have on mental health, the duration and intensity of the activity should not be overlooked. It appears that interventions lasting 12 weeks or under were the most effective, as were high-intensity forms of exercise.
The study authors go even further, explaining that physical activity is 1.5 times more effective than psychotherapy or the medications usually prescribed to fight the symptoms of depression.
This finding obviously depends on the severity and nature of the disorders observed.
According to the study, people suffering from depression, pregnant women, postpartum women, people in good health and people with HIV or kidney disease, are those for whom exercise could be the most beneficial.
“Physical activity is known to help improve mental health. Yet despite the evidence, it has not been widely adopted as a first-choice treatment,” explains Dr Ben Singh, lead UniSA researcher.
“We hope this review will underscore the need for physical activity, including structured exercise interventions, as a mainstay approach for managing depression and anxiety,” concludes senior researcher, UniSA’s Prof Carol Maher.
Exercise and the brain: a connection to prioritise
“Physical activity can help you think, learn, problem-solve, and enjoy an emotional balance,” outlines the official US CDC site. “You don’t have to be a fitness guru to reap the benefits.
No matter your age or fitness level, any amount of physical activity can help,” it continued.
It mentions that physical activity can reduce risk of cognitive decline, including dementia, as well as foster better sleep.
More scientific arguments that show that physical activity is not to be neglected in the fight against mental disorders.