A recent overview of systematic reviews and meta-analyses found that exercise is significantly more effective than top medications or counseling for improving mental health, and benefits were seen in just 12 weeks. The review, which included 97 studies with a total of 128,119 participants, is the most comprehensive of its kind to date.
The study found that exercise can rapidly alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other forms of psychological distress. The largest benefits were seen among people with depression, pregnant and postpartum women, healthy individuals, and people diagnosed with HIV or kidney disease.
Lead researcher Dr. Ben Singh of the University of South Australia says that physical activity must be prioritized to better manage the growing cases of mental health conditions. “Physical activity is known to help improve mental health. Yet despite the evidence, it has not been widely adopted as a first-choice treatment,” he notes. “Our review shows that physical activity interventions can significantly reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in all clinical populations, with some groups showing even greater signs of improvement.”
The review also found that higher intensity exercise had greater improvements for depression and anxiety, while longer durations had smaller effects when compared to the superior short and mid-duration bursts, such as X Gym style Xercise.
Another systematic review, published in April 2022 found that compared to those who did not exercise, people who got only half the recommended volume of physical activity (AKA “weekend warriors”) still lowered their risk for depression by 18%.
Mechanistic studies have also linked the antidepressant effects of exercise to molecular mechanisms involving kynurenine, a neurotoxic stress chemical produced from the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid required for the synthesis of serotonin, melatonin, vitamin B3, and kynurenine. While kynurenine is associated with stress and depression at higher levels, higher levels of serotonin are associated with improved mood. Exercise can allow for more tryptophan to be transported into the brain, raising serotonin levels and inhibiting conversion into kynurenine, thereby boosting mood and preventing depression.
Given the growing body of evidence supporting exercise as a powerful tool for improving mental health, it’s time for mental health professionals and doctors to start prescribing exercise as a first line of treatment (as I have been saying for decades now).