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Is Exercise More Effective Than Medication for Mental Health?

Physical activity and exercise have been shown effective for mental health.
Physical activity and exercise have been shown effective for mental health. Credit: Nenad Stojkovic / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Regular exercise can significantly improve symptoms of both depression and anxiety. Even as little as 10 to 15 minutes of exercise at a time can be beneficial.

According to the findings of a recent study, prescription physical activity as a treatment for severe depression was at least as effective as other typical medical treatments such as medication and psychotherapy.

Exercise as a Preventive Measure for Mental Health

Studies have also shown that regular exercise may have a positive effect on mood, help reduce stress, enhance self-esteem, and even improve cognitive performance. Exercise releases endorphins, which can relieve stress and improve well-being, and promote the growth of new neurons in the brain.

According to a number of studies, engaging in physical activity for at least half an hour three to five days a week can significantly relieve the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Even shorter bouts of physical exercise, lasting as little as ten to fifteen minutes, have been shown to have positive effects on mood.

Exercise has also been linked to a wide variety of other benefits, including enhanced quality of sleep, higher endurance, elevated levels of energy and stamina, weight loss, reduced cholesterol levels, and improved cardiovascular fitness.

Best Types of Exercise for Mental Health

Yoga, Tai Chi, and aerobic exercise are often recommended for their mood-enhancing effects. Yoga and Tai Chi both involve controlled breathing and meditation and have been found to reduce stress and anxiety, while running, cycling, and swimming are just a few examples of aerobic activities that have been linked to improved mental health. Well-being and motivation levels can be improved by choosing a combination of activities tailored to the needs of the individual.

Exercise as a First-Line Treatment

Despite the positive effects of exercise on mental health, some experts are still reluctant to make it a first-line treatment for mental health conditions. They believe that more research is needed to determine the types and amounts of exercise that work best, and to directly compare exercise interventions to drug therapy and psychotherapy.

A mental health clinician in Kentucky, Morgan Bailee Boggess McCoy, said, “Without downplaying the effectiveness of exercise as an effective treatment method, I don’t think I would go so far as to say it’s the only thing people should try.”

Importance of Lifestyle Factors and Counseling

While exercise is an effective treatment for mental health conditions, mental health clinicians suggest that a combination of counseling or talk therapy and a change in lifestyle factors works best. When beginning a new exercise program, it is important to see a doctor and choose one that will keep you feeling inspired and positive.

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