A Summary of Exercise & Mental Health
Author: James Widder
It’s common knowledge that exercise promotes physical health benefits (improved weight management, body composition, and the combating of chronic diseases) and the scientific community now offers ample evidence derived from hundreds of studies with thousands of subjects that identify exercise as an alternative or adjunct treatment for anxiety & depression. In the fields of mental health, exercise is not only related to relieving symptoms of depression & anxiety but also appears to enhance self-esteem, enable more restful sleep, and help people recover more quickly from psycho-social stresses.
Exercise Reduces Anxiety:
- Best with “aerobic exercise”
- Best after weeks of regular exercise (at least 10 -15+ weeks)
- Best for those high in anxiety to begin with (including coronary and panic disorders)
- Best for those lower in fitness
The fact that many meta-analyses identify exercise as an equal treatment for anxiety as many other commonly employed treatments is noteworthy due to its other health benefits.
Exercise as an Antidepressant:
- Best after weeks of regular exercise
- Best when done several times a week
- Best with more vigorous exercise
- Best for those who are more depressed
Major or clinical depression is the 4th most disabling condition in the world, and 2nd most in the industrial world. Depressed individuals annually spend 1.5 times more on health care than non-depressed individuals, and those being treated with antidepressants spend three times more on outpatient pharmacy costs than those not on drug therapy (Major Depression Facts). Regular exercise provides both a low cost option to relieve depression as well as a long-term method to improve & sustain ones overall health.
Since the early 1900s, hundreds of studies have examined the effects of exercise on mental health. The majority of current studies show that both acute and chronic exercise is related to a significant reduction in depression. These effects were typically larger than the anxiety-reducing effects noted earlier, and occur for subjects who were classified as non-depressed, clinically depressed, or mentally ill. The findings identified in Dr. Craft’s meta-analysis indicate that the antidepressant effect of exercise begins as early as the first session of exercise and lasts beyond the end of the exercise program. These effects are also consistent across age, gender, exercise group size, and type of depression (Landers).
Many current meta-analytic reviews identify minor, but statistically significant, increases in self-esteem as a result of exercise. These effects occurred in all genders and age groups. The meta-analysis by Dr. Gruber, focusing on childhood development, found that aerobic fitness created greater effects on self-esteem scores than other types of physical education class activities, such as, learning perceptual-motor skills or sports skills. Dr. Gruber also found that the effect of physical activity occurred more for handicapped compared to non-handicapped children (Landers). The meta-analysis by Dr. Fox identifies that the interactive effects of physical exercise & more conscious eating behavior produce both an increase in self- esteem, confidence, and self-control as well as the ingredients needed to sustain long term weight & body composition management (Fox).
The sleep meta-analyses conducted by Kubitz & colleges show that exercise significantly increases total sleep time and that aerobic exercise decreases rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Although REM sleep is a deep sleep, it is not as restful as slow wave sleep (i.e., stages 3 and 4 sleep; the deepest sleep). These studies also found that acute and chronic exercise relates to an increase in slow wave sleep, total sleep time, & decreases sleep onset latency (the time needed to go from full wakefulness to the first stage of sleep) and REM sleep. These findings reveal that people engaging in acute bouts of chronic exercise go to sleep more quickly, sleep longer, and have more restful sleep than subjects who did not exercise. Exercise created more sleep improvements when: (a) the individual is female, low fit, or older; (b) the exercise is longer in duration; & (c) the exercise was done earlier in the day (Kubitz).
Where traditional psychotherapy & medication may fail to treat depression & anxiety, exercise not only provides an effective option but also offers additional health benefits for all age groups & genders (Seligson).
About the Author