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Exercise vs Medication

The world is currently in the middle of a mental health crisis, with millions of people reporting depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions across all sectors of society. If we think about it, we probably all know someone who is currently struggling with their mental health so what about exercise

Mental health disorders come at great cost to both the individual and society, with depression and anxiety being among the leading causes of absence from work. The Covid pandemic is aggravating the situation, with a significant rise in rates of psychological distress as a result of Covid.

While traditional treatments such as therapy and medication can be extremely effective, new research has also highlighted how important exercise can be in managing mental health conditions. Recent research demonstrates the effects of physical activity on depression and anxiety and the results were good.

How long should we exercise?

In a recent study, it was found that participating in 150 minutes each week of various types of physical activity (such as brisk walking, lifting weights and yoga) significantly reduces depression, anxiety and psychological distress. One of the largest improvements was in people who are suffering from depression.

It was also determined that the higher the intensity of exercise, the more beneficial it is. For example, walking at a brisk pace, instead of walking at usual pace and exercising for six to 12 weeks has the greatest benefits, rather than shorter periods. Longer-term exercise was proven to be important for maintaining mental health improvements.

How much more effective?

So how does exercise compare to more traditional treatments, like medication, for example? When comparing the benefits of exercise to other common treatments for mental health conditions, our findings suggest that exercise is potentially around 1.5 times more effective than some medications.

Furthermore, exercise has additional benefits compared to medications, such as reduced costs, fewer side effects and benefits to our own physical health, such as healthier body weight, improved cardiovascular and bone health, and cognitive benefits.

Exercise can be cheaper than medication, with fewer side effects for our bodies.

Why it works

Exercise is believed to impact mental health through multiple pathways, and with short and long-term effects. Immediately after exercise, endorphins and dopamine are released in the brain.

In the short term, this helps boost mood and buffer any stress we might be feeling. Long term, the release of neurotransmitters in response to exercise promotes changes in the brain that help with mood and cognition, decrease inflammation and a boost to our immune function, which all influence our brain function and mental health.

Regular exercise can also lead to improved sleep which can be hugely helpful for people dealing with depression and anxiety. It also has psychological benefits, such as increased self-esteem, all of which are beneficial for people struggling with depression.

What is the role of exercise for mental health?

All of this points to the crucial role of exercise for managing depression, anxiety and psychological distress, a view which I have shared for a number of years. When I personally run or walk, I feel great afterwards. I ‘ve actively used exercise as part of my self-care routine for years and it helps me to deal with the emotional stresses I experience sometimes as a Counsellor.

The medical profession are still divided with more traditional practitioners preferring more traditional treatments, for example, medication and viewing exercise as an alternative treatment.

The traditional treatments still favour medication and this may be because exercise is hard to prescribe and monitor. There may also be physical or motivational reasons why people are unable to start exercise right away.

But don’t ‘go it alone’

It’s important to take note and appreciate that whilst exercise can be an incredibly effective tool for managing mental health conditions, people managing a mental health condition should work with a health professional to develop a comprehensive treatment plan – rather than going it alone with a new exercise regime alone.

A treatment plan may include a combination of lifestyle approaches, such as exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet, managing stress, alongside treatments such as counselling and medication.

Ideally exercise shouldn’t be viewed as a “nice to have” option. It is a powerful and accessible tool for managing mental health conditions – and the great things is that it’s free and comes with plenty of additional health benefits. What exercise will you try this week? x

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