NEW RESEARCH: Exercise can improve symptoms of mental health conditions

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Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
@EmmaThornton
Ask Emma


23 September 2019

What does the research say?

A scientific review just published has indicated that exercise could improve symptoms of several mental health disorders.1 This includes cognitive symptoms such as low mood, memory problems and difficulty concentrating, as well as neuropsychiatric symptoms such as sleep problems, behavioural changes and dramatic shifts between periods of euphoria and periods of irritability.

The review analysed 27 major studies to find new conclusions about the effect of exercise on individuals who had been diagnosed with anxiety and stress disorders, as well as other conditions such as depression, eating disorders and pre/post-natal depression. It was found that exercise consistently reduced symptoms of these conditions in children and adults.

The researchers concluded that exercise may be an effective treatment for a wide range of mental health disorders. As a result, they suggested it could be incorporated into treatment plans alongside support such as counselling or medication.

How does exercise help?

There are several reasons why exercise is thought to have such a beneficial effect on mental health conditions. First of all, it can provide a positive distraction and gives the individual something to work towards. When exercise goals are reached, that too can bring positive emotions, as well as a sense of pride and self-confidence.2

Depending on your sport, exercise also has the ability to become a social activity. The sense of comradery and the support of fellow team members can then ease feelings of loneliness and improve self-esteem.

On a physical level, exercise releases endorphins which are thought to influence the central nervous system. This can contribute to improved mood and an increased sense of calm after exercise. In addition, there is some evidence that exercise can increase the transmission of monoamines which act similarly to anti-depressant drugs.3

What kind of exercise could help?

In this study, researchers do not specify which sports are most beneficial in helping to improve the symptoms of mental health conditions. However, the NHS states that, as long as we are getting some movement, that is all that matters.4

For some exercise inspiration, take a look at our Get Active pages on '6 low impact sports' and how to 'Get fit without going to the gym'.

Top tips for getting active

Now that we know exercise has lots of benefits to bring to our mental well-being, you may be wondering how to get started and, most importantly, how to keep going. Here is my advice:

  • Don't do too much too quickly – small goals are much more achievable.
  • Keep note of how exercise is making you feel. Do you feel healthier or happier? Is it giving you a focus? On days where you are struggling to find the motivation to exercise, this can be a good resource to refer to.
  • Pick an activity you enjoy.
  • Don't be afraid to try several activities until you find one that you are happy and comfortable with.
  • Create your own exercise group – go for a walk with colleagues at lunch time or jog with friends after work. Exercise doesn't have to be formal, or at the same time every week!
  • Go along to your first session or class with a friend, family member or close colleague for a little bit of extra moral support.
  • Opt for a team sport or activity. You could check out what is in your area to see what you fancy.

Are there any problems with the study?

Although this review was large-scale, it is problematic in that it assumes people with mental health conditions are able to exercise in the first place. In reality, there are many things that may prevent an individual from being able to exercise, including financial barriers and physical obstacles.

Those suffering from the symptoms of major depression, for example, can often find it difficult to get out of bed and carry out everyday tasks such as washing or dressing. Therefore, the thought of exercising as part of a treatment plan may not be a realistic goal for this group, at least not initially.

As a result, doctors may have to consider exercise on a one-to-one basis when it comes to treatments plans.

Finding additional mental health support

Whilst we can suggest Stress Relief Daytime for mild stress and anxiety, if you are suffering from a more severe mental health condition, it is essential you seek the advice of a professional. Your GP will be on hand to discuss any problems but there are other resources and charities available as well:

Other than these, it can help to talk to friends and family about how you are feeling. Once they know what the problems are, they will be in a much better position to help and may be able to support you in finding advice from a professional.

References

1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31541410 

2 http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?pid=S1807-59322005000100012&script=sci_arttext 
http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?pid=S1807-59322005000100012&script=sci_arttext 
https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/exercise-for-depression/ 

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