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Little exercise increases the risk of depression and anxiety

Getty / Thomas Barwick

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that exercise can lift your mood and, in the long term, can also prevent mental health problems.

According to a study published Nov. 11 in the journal BMC Medicine, poor physical fitness over time increases the likelihood of depression and anxiety.

Researchers from two London universities and Massachusetts General Hospital examined the data of 152,978 British adults aged 40 to 69 years. For over seven years, they observed people’s fitness and related them to mental health symptoms.

People with high fitness had better mental health

They found that people who had pronounced muscular and aerobic fitness at the start of the study were also more likely to show good mental health in the follow-up phase – despite changes in their lifestyle, whether through diet, income or chronic illnesses.

Participants with the lowest fitness scores were almost twice as likely to report depression and 60 percent more likely to report anxiety than their peers who did better on the fitness tests.

The fitness of the participants was rated based on an endurance test on a bicycle ergometer and a grip strength test. This study is unique in that it uses such objective measures of fitness instead of self-reported exercise habits. Since many people tend to either overestimate or underestimate their exercise performance, this helped researchers better assess the relationship between mental health and fitness.

As a limitation of this study, it should be noted that although it found a connection between poor fitness and poor mental health, it did not directly show that lack of exercise causes depression or anxiety. There could be other possible reasons for this association – for example, people with symptoms of mental illness have less time and energy to exercise.

However, more research is needed to better understand how these findings could have practical use in helping people with depression and anxiety.

There is strong evidence that exercise promotes mental health

Previous studies have shown that exercise can relieve some symptoms of depression and anxiety. Because exercise releases endorphins – feel-good hormones – that reduce stress and improve mood.

A study was published last month that found that older people who regularly did high-intensity workouts had better mental health.

Exercise can also increase self-esteem. People who exercise regularly have been shown to be less lonely or socially isolated. Mental illnesses are complex, but social support, good self-confidence and coping strategies such as physical activity are important factors for long-term psychological resilience and a lower risk of illness.

All of these studies taken together indicate that people should be given enough opportunities to exercise. In this way, the rising rates of depression and anxiety could be combated.

The researchers also found that general fitness was more closely related to mental health than strength or endurance alone. This suggests that a balanced exercise plan with a combination of different forms of exercise could be of the greatest benefit.

This article was translated from English and edited by Ilona Tomić. You can read the original here.


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