The world is experiencing a mental health crisis with millions of people reporting depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. According to recent estimates, about half of U.S. adults ages 18-24 reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in 2023, compared to about one third of adults overall.
While traditional treatments such as therapy and medication can be effective, new research highlights the importance of exercise in managing these health conditions.
A recent study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, showed that exercise is 1.5 times more effective at reducing symptoms of depression, psychological stress, and anxiety than medication or counseling.
Researchers at the University of South Australia performed an expansive analysis of existing studies which included 97 reviews, 1039 trials and 128,119 participants, and found that doing 150 minutes of physical activity (such as strength training, brisk walking and yoga) significantly reduces depression and anxiety when compared to medication and therapy.
The researchers are calling on doctors and medical health professionals to start prescribing exercise as the first line of medical treatment.
Lead researcher, Dr Ben Singh, says physical activity must be prioritized to better manage the growing cases of mental health conditions. “Physical activity is known to help improve mental health. Yet despite the evidence, it has not been widely adopted as a first-choice treatment”
Dr Singh says, “Our review shows that physical activity interventions can significantly reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in all clinical populations, with some groups showing even greater signs of improvement. The largest benefits were seen among people with depression, pregnant and postpartum women, healthy individuals, and people diagnosed with HIV or kidney disease.”
“Higher intensity exercise had greater improvements for depression and anxiety, while longer durations had smaller effects when compared to short and mid-duration bursts.”
Senior researcher, Professor Carol Maher, says the study is the first to evaluate the effects of all types of physical activity on depression, anxiety, and psychological distress in all adult populations. “We hope this review will underscore the need for physical activity, including structured exercise interventions, as a mainstay approach for managing depression and anxiety.”
How does exercise impact the brain?
While exercise may seem simple on the surface, a number of chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters, are released throughout your body every time you go for a hike, lift weights, or participate in any other physical activity.
One of the most common neurotransmitters that people think of in relation to exercise is endorphins, known for producing the “runner’s high” or that feeling of euphoria, coupled with reduced anxiety and inability to feel pain.
Although endorphins do help prevent muscles from feeling pain, researchers have discovered that the relaxed feeling you get from exercise may instead be caused by increases in anandamide, an endocannabinoid similar to cannabis that is produced naturally by the body.
In a recent study at the University of Heidelberg medical school in Germany, researchers found that mice showed elevated levels of both endorphins and endocannabinoids after running. The team also observed that mice were calmer, less sensitive to pain, and less anxious after running.
When the team used drugs to block the animals’ endocannabinoid receptors, the mice were no longer relaxed after running; they were just as anxious as they had been before their runs. Blocking opioid receptors, on the other hand, did not have any effect on the serenity of the mice following running.
In addition, there is evidence suggesting that increased levels of anandamide during exercise may play a key role in the increased levels of BDNF while exercising. And, that high anandamide levels during recovery might postpone the return of BDNF to baseline following exercise.
As you may know, BDNF, short for brain-derived neurotrophic factor, is a protein that promotes new neuron growth and increases overall cognitive function. Known as miracle grow for the brain, BDNF also strengthens the synapses that connect neurons, allowing the brain to perform better.
Although BDNF levels are often lower in people in people with depression, training at 70–80 percent of your maximum heart rate increases the amount of BDNF in the body, showing that physical exercise can improve some of the biological factors involved in depression.
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