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Can physical activity help with symptoms of mental health disorders?

In 2019, one in eight people were affected by a mental health disorder across the globe, and most one in two will experience a mental health disorder at some point in their lives. Depression is the leading cause of mental health-related burden, while anxiety is the most prevalent mental health disorder.

Clinical practice guidelines vary in different countries. In the United States psychotherapy or pharmacotherapy is recommended as the initial treatment approach, with lifestyle approaches considered as 'complimentary alternative treatments'. In Australia, lifestyle management is the first-line treatment approach. Lifestyle management may look at areas such as exercise, sleep hygiene, and a healthy diet.

Hundreds of research trials have looked at the interaction between physical activity and depression, anxiety and psychological distress. Many outcomes from trials suggest that physical activity has similar effects to psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy in terms of cost, side effects and ancillary health benefits.

1039 unique randomised controlled trials were scrutinised to observe the effects of physical activity on depression and anxiety. Findings suggest that physical activity is effective in improving symptoms of depression and anxiety, particularly in those with depression, pregnant and post-partum women, apparently health individuals and those diagnosed with HIV or kidney disease.

Physical activity may involve aerobic, resistance, mixed-mode exercise and yoga. Low-level physical activity does not yield the same results as moderate and high-intensity exercise as both neurological and hormonal stimulation are needed for both serotonin and norepinephrine availability.

Now we know the significant benefits of physical activity on depression and anxiety, it should be widely prescribed as positive motion to help suffers manage their mental health.

Singh, B. et al. (2023). Effectiveness of physical activity interventions for improving depression, anxiety and distress: an overview of systematic reviews. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 106195.


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