How many of us know that exercise is beneficial for our health? Does anyone in 2022 seriously question whether or not exercise is a helpful activity or habit? Yet, how many of us still find all kinds of reasons NOT to exercise despite knowing all the possible health benefits? “I’m too tired. I don’t have enough energy. I don’t have enough time. I don’t even know where to start.” The list of excuses for why we can’t exercise can get quite long. In an attempt to quiet some of those excuses, I want to dive a bit deeper into the evidence supporting exercise and the positive impact it can have on mental health.
There is a fantastic organization out there called the John W. Brick Mental Health Foundation. I would recommend this organization as a resource for those seeking additional mental health support, but today, I want to focus on a yearly report they publish called “Move Your Mental Health.” This report basically summarizes all of the available scientific research that pertains to exercise and mental health.
The first takeaway from the report, while it may seem obvious, is certainly worth repeating: “Three decades of science make it clear: exercise should be integrated into prevention and treatment of mental illness and promotion of mental wellness.” I’m sorry to break it to all those excuses, but they don’t hold a candle to 30 years of scientific evidence.
Astoundingly, they found that “89% of all the published peer-reviewed research between 1990 to 2022 found a positive, statistically significant relationship between exercise/physical activity and mental health.” That’s 89% of over 1200 experimental studies. They go on to say that those meeting criteria for depressive disorders should be prescribed 30-45 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise 3-5 times per week as this seems to be a sweet spot in the literature for “optimal mental health benefits.” On top of that, there is evidence to support prescribing low intensity exercises like yoga, qi gong, or mind-body movement for those experiencing symptoms of anxiety.
I don’t want anyone to get too hung up on those numbers because they did conclude that the optimal type, intensity and duration of exercise generally remains unclear and that more studies are needed to determine the ideal exercise routine. While we might not know how much or how often, we do know definitely that exercise is an essential element to mental wellness.
The foundation found that exercise appears to positively impact mental health though biological pathways like increasing brain neurotransmitters and improving hormone function, as well as social and self-efficacy pathways. There is also evidence to support the combination of cardiovascular exercise and strength/resistance training for mental wellbeing. They conclude that exercise and movement can be considered mainstream elements of mental health care vs. the outdated view that exercise is only a complementary or alternative approach to treatment. There were some other findings in the report that you can explore further here: https://www.johnwbrickfoundation.org.
There is certainly room for additional research to help uncover answers to the how’s and why’s of exercise and the benefits it can have on our mental/emotional wellbeing, but the evidence is clear: exercise is beneficial for mental health. I’m not asking for 30-60 minutes of exercise right out of the gate, but can we take some small steps toward that goal. There is a lot to be said for 10-15 minutes of regular exercise, especially if we are stuck in a pattern of not doing it for months or years.
Start slow, be kind with yourself, and maybe consider looking into a personal trainer or group fitness class to help ease into the process of a regular exercise routine. It is becoming increasingly clear that exercise is a foundational element of health and well-being. I am confident that you will feel and see the benefits for yourself if you can nurture this aspect of your life consistently and compassionately.