Posted on Nov 13, 2020, 3 p.m.
According to research from University College London exercising during mentally turbulent times may be a good thing as findings published in BMC Medicine show that those with low aerobic and muscular fitness are twice as likely to experience depression.
“Here we have provided further evidence of a relationship between physical and mental health, and that structured exercise aimed at improving different types of fitness is not only good for your physical health, but may also have mental health benefits,” says lead study author Aaron Kandola, a Ph.D. student at UCL.
For this study data on 152,978 people between the ages of 40 and 69 were examined, participant aerobic fitness was tested using a stationary bike with increasing resistance muscular strength was measured according to grip strength, and questionnaires were used to gauge depression and anxiety symptoms with these levels all being measure again in 7 years.
Those with strong aerobic and muscular shape at the beginning of the study showed much better mental health at the 7-year mark than those who were less active. Those who rarely exercise were 60% more likely to report feelings of intense anxiety over a 7 year follow-up period, adults with the lowest levels of both fitness measures to start with were 98% more likely to experience depression 7 years later, and this group was also 91% more likely to experience at least one of these two disorders.
“Our findings suggest that encouraging people to exercise more could have extensive public health benefits, improving not only our physical health but our mental health too. Improving fitness through a combination of cardio exercise and strength and resistance training appears to be more beneficial than just focusing on aerobic or muscular fitness,” notes senior author Dr. Joseph Hayes.
Maintaining a regular exercise routine may be the key to mental health. Other potentially influential factors considered included mental health history, socioeconomic status, diet, and any prior chronic illness. While this is not the first study to conclude exercise promotes mental health, previous studies used self-reported exercise habits while this study collected fitness level information itself.
“Reports that people are not as active as they used to be are worrying, and even more so now that global lockdowns have closed gyms and limited how much time people are spending out of the house. Physical activity is an important part of our lives and can play a key role in preventing mental health disorders,” Kandola concludes. “Other studies have found that just a few weeks of regular intensive exercise can make substantial improvements to aerobic and muscular fitness, so we are hopeful that it may not take much time to make a big difference to your risk of mental illness.”
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