The link between Exercise and Mental Health

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Mental health is such an important topic that doesn’t get enough attention. What is the impact of exercise on mental health? Specifically, what type of exercise can play the most significant role in lowering your mental health risk?  


Before we dive into the research, it’s important to understand how significant mental health is in our lives.  According to the World Health Organization, depression affects more than 264 million people and is the leading cause of disability worldwide.  Anxiety ranks as the 6th leading cause of disability worldwide.   

Let’s look at a fascinating prospective study examining the impact of fitness on mental health.

Study Design

In this study, the authors looked to measure cardiorespiratory fitness, grip strength, and their relationship to depression and anxiety. What makes this study unique was that it’s the first prospective study to look at this connection.  The study included 152,978 participants with a seven-year follow-up. The participants completed validated questionnaires to assess for depression and anxiety: PHQ-9 (Patient Health Questionnaire), and the GAD-7.


They found that participants with the lowest amount of cardiorespiratory fitness had a 59.6 percent higher risk of depression. Also, their risk for anxiety was higher by 23 percent.

When the authors looked at grip strength, they found a similar pattern. Those with the lowest grip strength had a 41 percent increase in the risk of depression and a 38 percent increase in anxiety.

The authors then looked at those people who had the lowest amount of both cardiorespiratory AND grip strength.  These were folks who hardly did any physical activity. Here the results were even more surprising.  These participants had a 98.1 percent higher risk of depression and almost 60 percent higher risk of anxiety?  Moreover, they had an 80 percent higher risk of having a common mental disorder

If you are reading this and you have never exercise, is there hope for you? The answer is absolutely yes. In fact, as little as three weeks of regular exercise can increase your cardiorespiratory fitness by 31 percent. It would only go up from there if you kept doing it.  It can reduce your risk of having a mental disorder by over 14 percent.

Just remember that you want to focus on both cardiovascular AND strength training when it comes to exercise. Doing both can lower your risk of a mental disorder by 32.5 percent. There are 1440 minutes in each day, and we can all spare 20-30 minutes to improve our lives.

Strengths and Limitations of the study

Let’s start with the strengths of the study. It was a prospective (looking forward in time) study with a 7-year follow-up.  There was a large sample side. Lastly, they used validated questionnaires (PHQ-9 and GAD-7).

On the other hand, the study’s limitations were that it was not a randomized control study. There was a low response rate of only 5.5%

Bottom Line

The take-home message here is that in addition to improving your physical health, exercise plays a significant role in your mental health as well. If you have never exercised in a day in your life, it is never too late to start. Get up right now and do a little bit of walking. Get some small dumbbells and start a little resistance training. The most important thing is to get started today.

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Sean Hashmi MD
Articles: 56

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