Is working out as good for your mental health as therapy?

Exercise boasts all kinds of health benefits, but can a good workout rival seeing a therapist? When it comes to some mental health conditions, the answer might be ‘yes’.

The fact that exercise can improve mental health isn’t news, with research showing regular physical activity is linked to everything from feeling happier to reducing the risk of developing depression.

But a recent review study by researchers at the University of South Australia not only showed that exercise can actually improve symptoms of anxiety and distress, but it also found that physical activity is 1.5 times more effective than counselling or leading medications for managing depression.

As a result, the study’s lead researcher Dr Ben Singh says it’s time to start considering exercise as a first-line approach for managing the mental health condition.

“Physical activity is known to help improve mental health,” Dr Singh says in a UniSA article.

“Yet, despite the evidence, it has not been widely adopted as a first-choice treatment.

“Importantly, the research shows that it doesn’t take much for exercise to make a positive change to your mental health,” he says.

How exercise boosts your mental health

Director of Melbourne-based training and exercise therapy studio Club Forma Hayden Thin agrees that working out can often be as good as therapy for mental health.

“Exercise has an immediate effect on mental health by increasing blood flow to the brain, providing mental clarity,” Hayden says.

“Endorphins and dopamine are released as well, which give us that buoyant, happy feeling.”

Hayden says that longer term effects of exercise include changes in parts of the brain related to improved mood stability.

“Brain-derived neurotropic factor, a chemical messenger released during exercise, promotes cell growth in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for creativity, memory and mental acuity – all important for dealing with the stress of everyday life in effective, healthy ways.”

Over time, regular exercise can also improve sleep, which research shows is another factor that can promote better mental health.

Exercise as mental health therapy

According to the UniSA study, exercise interventions that are 12 weeks or shorter are the most effective at reducing mental health symptoms, reinforcing how quickly physical activity can deliver benefits.

“Higher intensity exercise had greater improvements for depression and anxiety,” Dr Singh says, “while longer durations had smaller effects when compared to short and mid-duration bursts.

“We also found that all types of physical activity and exercise were beneficial, including aerobic exercise such as walking, resistance training, Pilates and yoga.”

Hayden agrees. “In terms of training modality, all exercise is great for improved mental health,” he says.

“However, there’s a certain reaction that takes place in the body more effectively, when performing resistance or strength training workouts.”

The short story is, when your muscles contract, small proteins and peptides called myokines which help to regulate a number of the body’s systems, are produced and released into the bloodstream.

“And when they arrive at the brain, they regulate physiological and metabolic responses there too,” Hayden says.

“As a result, myokines have the ability to affect mood and emotional behaviour.

“So, at Club Forma, we recommend our clients perform a minimum of two to three 45- to 60-minute resistance training sessions per week, using progressive overload, along with three 20- to 30-minute cardio-based activities per week.”

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Written by Karen Fittall.