A group of medical researchers at the University of South Australia found that physical activity could sometimes be more effective than medications for treating depression, anxiety and distress.
The review, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, considered 97 reviews, 1,039 trials and 128,119 participants . There was a significant improvement in depression, anxiety, and distress symptoms with physical activity.
In terms of reducing mental health symptoms, programs of 12 weeks or less were most beneficial. Individuals with depression, pregnant and postpartum women, healthy individuals and those with HIV or kidney disease saw the greatest benefits.
A mental disorder affects one in eight people worldwide (970 million) . Further, the global economy is likely to lose $6 trillion by 2030 as a result of poor mental health.
An estimated one in five Australians (aged 16–85) have suffered a mental disorder in the past year. According to UniSA researcher Dr Ben Singh, mental health conditions are on the rise due to a lack of physical activity.
Physical activity can improve mental health, but even so, it’s not a first-choice treatment, Dr Singh says. There’s a lot of evidence that physical activity reduces depression and anxiety symptoms across a wide range of clinical populations.
In comparison to short and mid-duration bursts, higher intensity exercise improved depression and anxiety more than longer durations. Aerobic exercises like resistance training, Pilates, yoga and walking were also beneficial. “Importantly, the research shows that exercise doesn’t take much to make a positive change to your mental health.”
Prof Carol Maher, senior researcher at UniSA, says the study aims to evaluate the effects of physical activity on psychological distress, depression, anxiety and in adults of all ages. When you look at these studies as a whole, you can see that physical activity helps treat mental health disorders.
“We hope this review will underscore the need for physical activity, including structured exercise interventions, as a mainstay approach for managing depression and anxiety.”