Most of us will be very familiar with the feelgood factor of exercise: the way you can go into the gym feeling lethargic and/or frazzled by life pressures, and just a quick workout later come out feeling better both physically and mentally – instantly happier, more energetic, less stressed.
In fact, while there are numerous long-term health benefits of exercise, it tends to be the immediate endorphin rush that’s most persuasive. Certainly, in a survey conducted by UK-based mental health charity MIND, 83% of respondents said they exercised to help lift their mood or reduce stress, while seven out of 10 gym users with no mental health issues thought their mental wellbeing would suffer if they didn’t exercise.
And that’s without even starting on the other mental health benefits of being active, from improved self-esteem to an enhanced ability to cope with stress to an increased likelihood of good quality sleep.
But what about those who do suffer from mental health issues – the one in six people who, over the past week, will have experienced some sort of mental health problem, most commonly mixed depression and anxiety? Can they also benefit from exercise in a similar mood-enhancing way?
The short answer: yes, albeit perhaps not with such immediate effect.
Exercise as prevention
Let’s start with the preventative mental health benefits of being active.
One 2010 study, published in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, asked people to rate their mood immediately after periods of physical activity (e.g. going for a walk or doing housework) and periods of inactivity (e.g. reading a book or watching TV). Researchers found that participants felt calmer, more content and more awake after being physically active, with the greatest impact observed when mood was initially low.
The overall recommendation is that low-intensity aerobic exercise – 30-35 minutes on three to five days a week – is best for improving mood, but studies also show even a brisk 10-minute walk can increase our mental alertness, energy and positive mood.
And it doesn’t end at mood enhancement, with studies also highlighting a genuinely preventive role for exercise: a 30% lower risk of depression among physically active people.
Findings of a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry were even more notable, with people who “were not active in their leisure time almost twice as likely to suffer symptoms of depression than the most active individuals. The more people engaged in physical activity in their spare time, the less chance they had of being depressed”.
Exercise as treatment
There’s also positive news for those already suffering from depression.
Strong evidence exists to show a 20–30% reduction in depression among adults who participate in daily physical activity; there’s also some evidence to suggest a similar reduction in levels of anxiety and distress among those with mild symptoms.
Meanwhile, a US study published in 2017 – and based on 15 years of data – found that having good cardiorespiratory fitness could help prevent early death among men who suffer from depression. The study found that among this group, those with at least moderate cardiovascular fitness were 46% less likely to die of any cause during the 15-year period.
And the UK’s University of Manchester has probed into specific areas of mental health, unveiling studies in 2016 which found that tailored 10-week exercise programmes can have a significant impact in reducing the symptoms of early episode psychosis among 18- to 35-year-olds, and that aerobic exercise can significantly help people coping with the long-term mental health condition schizophrenia.
Other population groups can also benefit. A landmark research project carried out in 2015 in Sydney, Australia, concluded that individualised and targeted exercise programmes are a vital part of treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Although doctors still tend to prescribe anti-depressants sooner than they prescribe exercise, this research – and plenty more like it – goes to show just how effective exercise can be in treating mental health conditions.
Anyone suffering from depression, anxiety or any other form of serious mental health issue should of course seek medical advice, and certainly not take themselves off any medication without their doctor’s approval. Nevertheless, whether prescribed alongside medication or as an alternative to pills, all the evidence points to a significant role for exercise, both in terms of treating mental health conditions and/or preventing their recurrence.
And for those of us who simply feel a bit flat after a long day at work, the endorphin rush – the ‘happy hormones’ released by a workout – will always make a trip to the gym worth the effort.