Exercise is good for physical well-being, but it could also constitute a new therapeutic approach to managing depression, stress and anxiety.
That's according to a new study by Australian researchers, who explain that physical activity may even be more effective compared to the usual treatment for such conditions, and this for all populations.
A major public health issue, and even more in the spotlight since the Covid-19 pandemic, mental health is now considered one of the greatest blights of our time.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in eight people in the world, i.e. some 970 million people, was living with a mental disorder in 2019.
A figure that soared by 26% to +8% in 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, and which has been continually increasing since that time.
"While effective prevention and treatment options exist, most people with mental disorders do not have access to effective care.
"Many people also experience stigma, discrimination and violations of human rights," outlines the WHO.
This is a major issue on which researchers around the world are working, in an effort to combat, if not prevent, symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders.
Prescribing physical exercise
Researchers at the University of South Australia (UniSA) recently unveiled the results of a large-scale study suggesting that exercise of any kind could be a serious approach to managing depression.
In some cases, physical activity may be more effective than some current treatments for mental disorders, including anxiety and psychological distress.
The research encompasses 97 reviews, 1,039 clinical trials and more than 128,000 participants.
Published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM), the study states that "physical activity is highly beneficial for improving symptoms of depression, anxiety and distress".
While all types of physical activity and exercise are beneficial for mental disorders, including walking, yoga or fitness, it appears that duration and intensity play a role in their effectiveness.
Researchers report that exercise interventions lasting 12 weeks or less were the most effective in relieving mental health symptoms, as were higher intensity exercises.
Looking at a wide range of populations including healthy adults, the study revealed that people suffering from depression, pregnant women, postpartum women, healthy people and people with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) or kidney disease benefited the most from exercise.
The scientists also state that physical activity is 1.5 times more effective than counselling or medications usually given to combat symptoms of depression.
"Physical activity is known to help improve mental health. Yet, despite the evidence, it has not been widely adopted as a first-choice treatment," says study lead researcher Dr Ben Singh.
"We hope this review will underscore the need for physical activity, including structured exercise interventions, as a mainstay approach for managing depression and anxiety," adds Professor Carol Maher, who also worked on the study.
These results can be viewed in a context where numerous other studies point the finger at sedentary lifestyles as one of the major issues of this century, just like mental health.
According to a report presented by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), members of the European Union are far too sedentary, or do not respect the 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week recommended by the WHO.
These levels of physical activity could help prevent 11.5 million new cases of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) by 2050, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and depression. – AFP Relaxnews