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Get Out and Get Moving: Exercise for Mental Health

Exercise remains underappreciated for mental health concerns.

Key points

  • Research shows exercise may lead to reductions in obsessive-compulsive disorder, ADHD, and depression.
  • Exercise and yoga can help alleviate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Sports can be beneficial for mental health overall, as they combine exercise and social connection.

Most people do not realize that aerobic exercise is good not just for your body but for your psyche as well. Although most consider psychotherapy or medications to be the frontline approach for psychological disorders, exercise remains underappreciated as a free and fun remedy for numerous mental health concerns.

Shift Drive/Shutterstock
Source: Shift Drive/Shutterstock

For example, even though it is not a cure, several studies have shown that regular exercise reduces the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Leading experts now recommend it as an adjunct to gold-standard cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for OCD (Abrantes et al., 2009).

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can also be reduced with exercise. One study examined this by randomizing participants with PTSD to an effective therapy called prolonged exposure (PE) or prolonged exposure plus exercise (PE+E). Participants in the PE+E condition completed 30 minutes of moderate treadmill exercise before each therapy session. The PE+E group was the clear winner, showing greater improvement in PTSD symptoms at the end of the treatment period (Powers et al., 2015).

Other physical activities can also alleviate symptoms. Bessel van der Kolk, PTSD guru, found benefits from yoga in reducing PTSD in his research and now recommends it for all of his traumatized clients (van der Kolk, et al., 2014).

Exercise can be a great antidote for those who can’t sit still or are easily distracted, as vigorous morning exercise has been shown to greatly help young people manage their symptoms of ADHD throughout the day. Researchers pooled the results of several ADHD studies and found that the longer the duration of the exercise, the larger the effect (Vysniauske et al., 2020). In light of these findings, public schools should think twice about eliminating PE and shrinking recess time for students.

At my own clinic in Connecticut, we see many clients suffering from symptoms of depression, either alone or with another disorder. If the depression is severe, we make exercise part of the daily homework, even if that means just a 10-minute walk a day. With a little time and persistence, the 10-minute walk can grow to 20 or 30 minutes, or even evolve into jogging or hiking.

 vgajic/iStock Photo
Source: vgajic/iStock Photo

Sports can be even better than just a solitary walk because they connect you with people, which is another important part of helping those who are depressed. Spending time with others is a key ingredient to elevating a blue mood, and combining that with exercise is never a bad idea.

However, sports are losing momentum due to the rise in the number of young people using online gadgets as entertainment. Research shows that participating in sports helps people develop better social skills, improves self-esteem, fosters self-confidence, improves self-control, and leads to greater competence. Further, people who engage in sports have fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety (Hiremath, 2019).

However, a word of caution is advised. Any sport that results in a blow to the head is not good for psychological health. It is well known that a concussion is bad for the brain and can be the cause of several persistent mental health issues. In fact, many football players have suffered from post-concussive syndrome, which can cause mood swings or even suicidality. Likewise, even bicycling can be dangerous if you don’t wear a helmet.

In summary, exercise is great for mental health—just protect your head.

References

Abrantes, A. M., Strong, D. R., Cohn, A., Cameron, A. Y., Greenberg, B. D., Mancebo, M. C., & Brown, R. A. (2009). Acute changes in obsessions and compulsions following moderate-intensity aerobic exercise among patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Journal of anxiety disorders, 23(7), 923-927.

Hiremath, C. (2019). Impact of sports on mental health. International Journal of Physiology, Nutrition and Physical Education, 14-18.

Powers, M. B., Medina, J. L., Burns, S., Kauffman, B. Y., Monfils, M., Asmundson, G. J., ... & Smits, J. A. (2015). Exercise augmentation of exposure therapy for PTSD: rationale and pilot efficacy data. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 44(4), 314-327.

van der Kolk, B., A., Stone, L., West, J., Rhodes, A., Emerson, D., Suvak, M., & Spinazzola, J. (2014). Yoga as an adjunctive treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder: A randomized controlled trial. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 75(6), 22573.

Vysniauske, R., Verburgh, L., Oosterlaan, J., & Molendijk, M. L. (2020). The effects of physical exercise on functional outcomes in the treatment of ADHD: A meta-analysis. Journal of Attention Disorders, 24(5), 644–654. https://doi.org/10.1177/1087054715627489

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