A Scientific Look at How Exercise Helps Mental Health
You’ve certainly heard that taking a walk around the neighborhood can help lift a depressive mood or make you feel better, but does science back this up?
We spoke with leading professionals and looked at the latest research to get the facts on how a few extra minutes of light, easy exercise each day might affect you for years to come.
A Natural Antidepressant
Many mental health concerns are treated pharmacologically, but research indicates that exercise may be as effective as known drugs for some patients. One of the most significant potential areas for exercise therapy is depression.
A systematic review of studies published between 1999 and 2016 found that exercise “is an evidenced-based medicine for depression” that can serve as either a standalone treatment or support antidepressant medication.
“For my moderately depressed patients, I often suggest exercise as the first step in managing their moods,” therapist Jacob Brown says. “I have found that this initial act of taking a walk often leads patients to new interests and activities — for example, they'll start to notice the birds or trees on their walk — and these new interests can be the first steps in letting go of depression.”
Beyond treating current concerns, exercise can be part of a proactive therapy or approach to safeguarding against future mental health concerns.
A 2018 study found that “regular leisure-time exercise of any intensity provides protection against future depression,” and exercise increases at the population level may “prevent a substantial number of new cases of depression.”
The prevention is partially due to the physical health benefits of exercise and partially due to social health benefits. And it only requires a minimum of one hour of physical activity each week.
Exercise and Brain Health
Exercise, it turns out, changes your brain.
Scientists are studying exactly how exercise affects the physical structure of the brain and related cells. A recent look at the linkage of structural changes found that running’s antidepressant effect is associated with an increase in brain cells in the hippocampus.
“Most people are aware that exercise can produce ‘feel good’ chemicals in the brain called endorphins,” says Family Addiction Specialist Aaron Sternlicht. “What some don’t know is that exercise, especially low-intensity exercise sustained over time, helps nerve cells grow and make new connections, subsequently improving brain functioning and helping individuals to feel better.”
The Starting Point
Exercise and better mental health are related, although studies differ on whether this is causational (exercise leads to better mental health) or correlational (people who exercise tend to have better mental health).
“The bottom line is that more research is needed,” says Bart Wolbers of Nature Builds Health. “Nevertheless, exercise may help reverse mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. It also likely fosters mental health and beneficial habits in healthy people as well.”
It’s important to note that studies referenced in this article should not be taken as medical advice, and you should consult with your doctor about any ongoing mental or physical health concerns as well as treatments.