Does Exercise Improve Mental Health?
The overall conclusion from many published studies is that exercise even modest activity such as taking a daily walk can help combat a variety of mental health problems. Overall, physically active people who exercise 2.5-7.5 hours per week are about 25-30% less likely to feel distressed than inactive people. Regardless of the number, age, or health status of the people being studied, those who were active managed stress better than their inactive counterparts. Among athletic teenagers, there is a correlation between exercise and improved social interaction, as well as between exercise and enhanced looks (e.g., better body structure), two factors that contribute to the mental health. Physical activity has also been shown to improve conditions for people with anxiety; affective, eating, and substance use disorders; as well as schizophrenia and dementia. (In some studies, therapeutic contact, social support, and distraction have been found to have some of the same positive effects of low-intensity exercise.)
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A simple walk can be very effective: One study found that taking a long walk can reduce anxiety and blood pressure. Another showed that a brisk walk of as little as 10 minutes’ duration can leave people feeling more relaxed and energetic for up to two hours. People who took three brisk 45-minute walks each week for three months reported that they perceived fewer daily hassles and had a greater sense of general wellness.
The findings are not surprising. The stress response mobilizes energy resources and readies the body for physical emergencies. If you experience stress and do not exert yourself physically, you are not completing the energy cycle. You may not be able to exercise while your daily stressors are occurring, but you can be active later in the day. Such activity allows you to expend the nervous energy you have built up and trains your body to return more readily to homeostasis after stressful situations. Physical activity also helps you sleep better. Sound sleep is critical to managing stress. According to the National Sleep Foundation, people who exercise vigorously are the most likely to report a good night’s sleep. Of those who do not regularly exercise, about one-half report being wakeful during the night, every night. Quality sleep and regular exercise work in a cycle, so that a decrease in one can lead to a decrease in the other. There are about 70 known sleep disorders, and disordered sleep is associated with a variety of physical and neurological problems, including health problems relating to stress. Regular activity promotes better sleep and provides some protection against sleep interruptions such as insomnia and sleep apnea. Consistent, restful sleep is now regarded as a protective factor in disorders such as depression, anxiety, obesity, and heart disease.
Relationship between physical activity and general mental health. Preventive Medicine 55(5):458-463; Monschouwer, Karin, et al. 2013. Possible mechanisms explaining the association between physical activity and mental health: findings from the 2001 Dutch health behaviour in school-aged children survey. Clinical Psychological Science January 1(1): 67-74; Zschucke, E., et al. January 2013. Exercise and physical activity in mental disorders: clinical and experimental evidence. Journal of Preventive Medicine & Public Health J46 (Suppl. 1): S12-S21; National Sleep Foundation.