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Departments: Fitness Focus


Bladen, Teri L. M.S., ACSM-EP®, ACSM-GEI®

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ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: 1/2 2019 - Volume 23 - Issue 1 - p 3
doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000454
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With the new year's surge of resolutions, we tend to see an increase in physical activity as people enthusiastically (or begrudgingly) throw themselves into exercise regimens to “get into shape,” “lose 10 lbs,” or “feel better.” Perhaps you are struggling with making that pledge. If you are dragging your feet on making the commitment, let us add another benefit to sweeten the pot: exercise also can have positive effects on your mental health. In a review of exercise and mental health research, Mikkelsen et al. outline the many benefits exercise can have on mental well-being (1).


According to the National Institute of Mental Health and the Harvard Medical School National Comorbidity Survey conducted from 2001 to 2003, an estimated 31.1% of U.S. adults experience an anxiety disorder at some time in their lives, with an estimated 19.1% of U.S. adults having an anxiety disorder in the past year (2). In addition, results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health show an estimated 16.2 million U.S. adults had at least one major depressive episode in 2016; this number represented 6.7% of all U.S. adults (3). In the research review, Mikkelsen et al. note that evidence consistently suggests that regular physical activity can significantly improve mental health and lessen symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, and panic disorder. Encouragingly, positive effects of exercise covered a large part of the life span, with evidence of enhanced mental health also seen in the elderly and adolescents with depression or anxiety. In the largest cross-sectional study to date (1.2 million U.S. individuals between 2011 and 2015), Chekroud et al. found that individuals who exercised had about 1.5 fewer days of poor mental health in the past month than persons who did not exercise (4).


The reviewers acknowledge that most of the research conducted on exercise and mental health focuses on aerobic exercises meant to condition the cardiorespiratory system. Although there are fewer studies on training modalities that focus on muscular strength, flexibility, agility, and balance, nonaerobic exercise forms (such as yoga, martial arts, Tai Chi, etc.) did show increased benefits to mood outcomes. Therefore, aerobic exercise may not be the only form of exercise that can positively affect mood. The reviewers conclude that both aerobic and nonaerobic exercise seem to be effective in improving mental health.

Consistency of exercise also may play an important role in promoting positive mental health. As part of the review, a longitudinal study spanning from 1996 to 2007 was retrospectively analyzed, and it was concluded that consistent exercise, even shorter episodes conducted a few times a week, was significantly associated with lower risk of depressive symptoms (1). In their cross-sectional study, Chekroud et al. noted that the positive association between exercise and mental health was the strongest for individuals who exercised between 30 and 60 minutes per session, three to five times per week (4).


Although the review of evidence highlights the multiple benefits exercise has on mental well-being, avoid doing too much too fast. Chekroud et al. found that sessions of more than 23 times per month, or longer than 90 minutes per session, were associated with worse mental health. Consistency in exercise is important, so start with activity that is manageable and gradually increase intensity and duration so that your efforts are sustainable.


With the review of evidence, Mikkelsen et al. show that consistent exercise can mitigate depression, lessen anxiety, and reduce stress levels. The reviewers conclude that evidence supports exercise as a viable preventative or adjunct treatment option for improved mental health outcomes. The evidence also supports that both aerobic and anaerobic modalities can get the job done. With so many physical benefits to exercise AND a multitude of mental benefits, what is holding you back? Make that commitment to exercise regularly. Do it for the (mental) health of it!


1. Mikkelsen K, Stojanovska L, Polenakovic M, Bosevski M, Apostolopoulos V. Exercise and mental health. Maturitas. 2017;106:48–56.
2. Harvard Medical School. National Comorbidity Survey (NCS). (2017 Aug 21). [cited 2018 Sept 18]. Available from:
3. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results From the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. (HHS Publication No. SMA 17–5044, NSDUH Series H-52). Rockville (MD): Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; 2017. [cited 2018 Sept 18]. Available from:
4. Chekroud S, Gueorguieva R, Zheutlin A, et al. Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1.2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: a cross-sectional study. Lancet Psychiatry. 2018;5:739–46.
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