Exercise better for mental health than prescription drugs or therapy

ADELAIDE, Australia — What’s better for your health? Movement or medication? New findings out of Australia show that staying in motion can do a world of good for mental health. Notably, study authors from the University of South Australia add that exercise appears to be more effective for mental well-being than other common remedies such as prescription drugs or therapy.

Largely ignored and pushed aside in years past, poor mental health has emerged in recent decades as a modern problem of epidemic proportions. Everyone gets the blues from time to time, but what can you do when depression and anxiety start impeding on day-to-day life? There’s no easy answer to that question, and what works for one person may not help the next.

Poor mental health is as nuanced as it is difficult to treat, but the research team believes exercise should most definitely be a mainstay approach for managing depression. Why? The study finds regular physical activity was 1.5 times more effective than either counseling or the leading medications.

In what researchers are calling the most comprehensive review of this topic thus far, the study included 97 reviews, 1039 trials, and 128,119 participants. Ultimately, study authors report exercise is extremely beneficial for improving symptoms linked to depression, anxiety, and distress.

Importantly, the study also suggests that a person doesn’t have to take up exercise for all that long to enjoy some benefits. Researchers report exercise interventions lasting 12 weeks or less were actually the most effective at combating and lowering mental health symptoms. Among specific demographics, the biggest mental health benefits appeared among people with depression, pregnant and postpartum women, generally healthy individuals, and those living with either HIV or kidney disease.

pregnant exercise
Pregnant woman exercising (Credit: freestocks.org from Pexels)

Poor mental health is devastating for the global economy

“Physical activity is known to help improve mental health. Yet despite the evidence, it has not been widely adopted as a first-choice treatment,” Dr. Ben Singh, lead UniSA researcher, says in a university release. “Our review shows that physical activity interventions can significantly reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in all clinical populations, with some groups showing even greater signs of improvement.”

Higher intensity exercise had greater improvements for depression and anxiety, while longer durations had smaller effects when compared to short and mid-duration bursts,” Dr. Singh continues. “We also found that all types of physical activity and exercise were beneficial, including aerobic exercise such as walking, resistance training, Pilates, and yoga. Importantly, the research shows that it doesn’t take much for exercise to make a positive change to your mental health.”

According to the World Health Organization, about one in every eight people globally (970 million people) live with a mental disorder. Moreover, estimates show that poor mental health costs the world economy roughly $2.5 trillion annually. By 2030, the projected annual cost will hit $6 trillion.

Senior researcher, UniSA’s Prof. Carol Maher, adds this study is the first ever to evaluate the effects of all varieties of physical activity on depression, anxiety, and psychological distress across all adult populations.

“Examining these studies as a whole is an effective way to for clinicians to easily understand the body of evidence that supports physical activity in managing mental health disorders,” Maher concludes. “We hope this review will underscore the need for physical activity, including structured exercise interventions, as a mainstay approach for managing depression and anxiety.”

The study is published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

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