Physical Activity is Effective for Improving Symptoms of Mental Health Conditions

The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise and Physical Activity infographic. Open PDF for full transcript.

Depression and anxiety are among the most common mental health disorders, often having detrimental and disruptive impacts on people’s lives (Patel V et al., Global Health Data Exchange).  A systematic review, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, including 1,039 randomized controlled trials and 128,119 participants found that physical activity, defined as “any bodily movement produced by the contraction of skeletal muscles that results in a substantial increase in caloric requirements over resting energy expenditure,” is associated with a 43% reduction in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and psychological distress compared with usual care.  

The effects of physical activity on mental health symptoms were similar across a wide range of adult populations, including the general population, people with diagnosed mental health disorders, and people with chronic disease. However, the largest reductions in mental health symptoms were observed in people with depression, pregnant and postpartum women, apparently healthy individuals, and individuals diagnosed with human immunodeficiency virus or kidney disease.

All modes of physical activity were beneficial, including aerobic, resistance, mixed-mode exercise, and yoga. A study published in the Handbook of Sport Psychology states the beneficial effects of physical activity on mental health symptoms may be due to a combination of psychological, neurophysiological, and social mechanisms.  Previous research has shown that different physical activity modes induce different physiological(Rivera‐Brown et al.) and psychosocial effects(Rivera‐Brown et al., Carin-Levy et al.), and this is supported by the results of the systematic review.  For example, resistance exercise demonstrated the largest effects on reducing symptoms of depression, while yoga and other mind-body exercises were most effective for reducing symptoms of anxiety.

Higher intensity physical activity was associated with more improvement in mental health symptoms. Low-intensity physical activity may be inadequate to stimulate the neurological and hormonal changes associated with larger improvements in depression and anxiety (Handbook of Sport Psychology). The review also analyzed the effectiveness of different durations of physical activity and found that the effectiveness of physical activity in improving mental health symptoms decreases with longer periods of exercise.  This finding may be due to a decline in adherence with longer exercise periods or perhaps because the benefits of physical activity plateau after a certain period of time.     Physical activity is a cost-effective and accessible intervention that can be readily implemented in most healthcare settings. However, exercise should not be viewed as a substitute for current treatments such as counseling and medication, but rather as an adjunct treatment and part of a comprehensive management approach to optimize mental health by reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and psychological distress.