Depression and anxiety are leading causes of the global mental health burden and the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the situation. In 2019, the World Health Organization said that one in eight people, or 970 million people, around the world were living with a mental health disorder. That number rose significantly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While traditional treatments, such as therapy and medication, can be effective, new research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that exercise is an even more efficient way to treat mental health issues.
According to The Guardian, Australian researchers reviewed more than 1,000 trials that included 128,119 participants.
“We found that doing 150 minutes each week of various types of physical activity (such as brisk walking, lifting weights and yoga) significantly reduces depression, anxiety and psychological distress, compared to usual care,” the authors wrote.
The largest improvements were noted in people with depression, HIV, kidney disease, women who were pregnant or postpartum, and in healthy individuals, although benefits were seen across the board for all populations.
“We found that the higher the intensity of exercise, the more beneficial it is,” said the research team. “For example, walking at a brisk pace, instead of walking at a usual pace. And exercising from six to 12 weeks has the greatest benefits, rather than shorter periods. Longer-term exercise is important for maintaining mental health improvements.”
The scientists from the University of Southern Australia said that their findings suggest exercise is 1.5 times more effective than either medication or cognitive behavioral therapy. The American Psychological Association emphasizes medication and therapy alone to manage depression, anxiety, and psychological stress, says The Guardian, and considers exercise to be an alternative treatment, in the same category as acupuncture.
While exercise is an effective tool to manage mental health conditions, the authors of the study add that health care professionals should be consulted to help develop a comprehensive treatment plan. That treatment plan may include exercise, along with other lifestyle options such as eating a balanced diet and socializing, as well as medication and therapy.
Ben Singh, the lead author of the study, says that physical activity must be prioritized to better manage the growing cases of mental health conditions.
“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,” he said in a university news release. “We also found that all types of physical activity and exercise were beneficial, including aerobic exercise such as walking, resistance training, Pilates and yoga.”
The authors concluded, “We hope this review will underscore the need for physical activity, including structured exercise interventions, as a mainstay approach for managing depression and anxiety.”
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