How does physical activity affect mental health?


There is always lots of talk about the benefits of regular exercise and its effect on fitness and physical health. Across the lifespan, exercise can improve physical qualities such as strength, endurance, and flexibility. Not only does it enhance one’s quality of life, it reduces the risk of getting cancer, diabetes, heart disease, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, stroke, and many other conditions.

Although there are many physical health benefits, more and more emerging data supports the use of regular physical activity for mental health conditions.

Physiotherapy, Kinesiology and Exercise

Recently, a large study investigated the relationship between physical activity and new onset depression. The study included 49 individual studies with a sample size totalling 267,000 participants.

These were the results: “higher levels of physical activity offer[ed] a protective effect on future development of depression for people of all ages (youths, working-age adults, elderly persons), and this finding was robust across geographical regions around the world.”

This is big; physical activity reduced the risk of developing depression!

But what if you already have depression, can physical activity help?

Yes!  A recent study pooled 33 clinical trials, including 1,877 participants and found that resistance exercise training was associated with a significant reduction in depressive symptoms

Physiotherapy, Kinesiology and Exercise

Additionally, another study analyzed the results of 16 different studies only to again find that physical activity had a ‘large effect size’ in reducing depressive symptoms in adolescents and young adults diagnosed with depression. Similar studies also hold true for adult and the elderly populations.

Physical activity likely protects us against physical and mental health conditions. How physical activity accomplishes these changes is up for debate, but improvement in self-esteem, self-efficacy and physical fitness likely plays a role. Also, changes in depressive symptoms could be the result of a better balance of pro and anti-inflammatory mediators while stimulating regular release of dopamine,oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins from the ‘drug cabinet’ of the brain.

Nonetheless, if you're looking to get physically active and capitalize on these benefits, speak to a physiotherapist and determine a plan that suits you, your lifestyle and goals.

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  1. Schuch et al. Physical Activity and Incident Depression: A Meta-Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies. The American Journal of Psychiatry. February 2018.

  2. Gordon et al. Association of Efficacy of Resistance Exercise Training With Depressive Symptoms: Meta-analysis and Meta-regression Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. JAMA Psychiatry. May 2018.

  3. Bailey et al. Treating depression with physical activity in adolescents and young adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Psychology Medicine. August 2017.

Sean Overin, Physiotherapist

By Sean Overin, Physiotherapist