Exercise Proven to be 1.5 Times More Effective than Medication for Mental Health Disorders
Mental health disorders are a significant burden to individuals and society, with depression and anxiety among the leading causes of health-related disease. The Covid pandemic has further exacerbated the situation, causing an increase in psychological distress among one-third of people. Fortunately, a new study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine provides hope for those living with mental health issues – physical activity can offer a viable treatment solution.
The most comprehensive review to date, encompassing 97 reviews, 1039 trials, and 128,119 participants, revealed that exercise is 1.5 times more effective than medication or counseling for managing depression. Surprisingly, the results showed that the greatest advantages seem to be derived from shorter interventions, with small weekly physical activity sessions being more advantageous than longer ones. The review showed that exercise interventions that were 12 weeks or shorter were most the effective at reducing mental health symptoms. Exercise was found to provide a positive mental health benefit for individuals with HIV, kidney disease, and pregnant and post-partum women.
It is thought that exercising has both short- and long-term effects on mental health, operating through multiple mechanisms. Following exercise, the brain releases endorphins and dopamine. “Importantly, the research shows that it doesn’t take much for exercise to make a positive change to your mental health,” says lead UniSA researcher, Dr Ben Singh. Exercise has additional benefits compared to medications, such as reduced cost, fewer side effects and offering bonus gains for physical health, such as healthier body weight, improved cardiovascular and bone health, and cognitive benefits.
The Australian and New Zealand Clinical Guidelines recognize the importance of exercise when treating certain conditions, in addition to recommending medication and psychotherapy. Lifestyle changes, such as exercise, are thus part of the overall treatment plan. When dealing with mental health conditions, it is essential to work with a health professional to come up with a comprehensive treatment plan, rather than relying solely on exercise. Exercise may be effective, but should not be the only method used. It is clear that medication and therapy still remain essential treatments for many mental health conditions; however, the findings imply that exercise should also be brought to the forefront as a form of treatment.
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