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Exercise prescription powerful for mental health conditions

Exercise can have a profound effect on mental health conditions. In fact, exercise physiologists now understand that exercise can be just as effective as other forms of treatment for mild-to-moderate depression.

Anita Hobson-Powell, ESSA Chief Executive Officer, said we know that physical inactivity is the cause of approximately 9 per cent of premature mortality worldwide, with people experiencing a mental illness being particularly vulnerable.

"The benefits of exercise on mental health include improved memory, focus and thinking skills; improved sleep; reduced stress and anxiety; and prevention against depression and other mental health conditions.

“It also incorporates the opportunity to be social with others and can be a handy distraction tool from negative thoughts,” said Ms Hobson-Powell.
Exercise Physiologist Greg Maserow said it is well-documented that exercise can be as effective as therapy and medication for treating mild to moderate depression and anxiety.

A recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry provides the 'strongest evidence' yet that exercise has a protective effect against depression.

Using the genetic data of 300,000 adult participants, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital found those who exercised more lowered their risk of major depressive disorders.

Lead researcher Dr Karmel Choi said: "We found evidence that higher levels of physical activity may causally reduce the risk for depression."

Surprisingly, the research also demonstrated that switching sedentary behaviour for as little as 15 minutes of vigorous physical activity per day can reduce depression risk by approximately 26 per cent.

“This research is the first of its kind that helps solidify whether depression causes a lack of physical activity or lack of physical activity causes depression - and this genetic study appears to prove the latter.

“The study also proves that exercise can help those who are more genetically susceptible to mental health problems,” said Mr Maserow.

In addition to helping prevent the onset of depressive illness, exercise can also improve sleep hygiene, which also impacts mental health, said Mr Maserow.

“When you rest fully at night, and you feel more energised during the day, which helps you to cope better under the daily stresses that life presents. 

“A good night’s sleep also helps to re-regulate your mood.

“Exercise can also give you a sense of accomplishment as your fitness improves, and you start achieving your goals.

“Being part of a fitness community made up of like-minded people who are all trying to better their well-being can have a positive influence on your mental health.

“It's a place filled with positivity, strength and constant messages of change - for the better. That can be very contagious and has a powerful flow-on effect,” said Mr Maserow.

While the evidence supporting the benefits of exercise for mental health is conclusive, it can be difficult to motivate those struggling psychologically to engage in physical activity.

“I’ve found that people with depression and anxiety are more likely to adhere to an exercise program where they feel a part of something bigger than themselves. Small group training has been incredibly effective in doing this.

“It is all well and good to be 'aware' of the benefits and the research that exercise has on one's mental health, but if an exercise is not being performed, then what is the point?

“I feel the focus should be on creating an environment that is conducive to exercise adherence. The rest will naturally take care of itself,” said Mr Maserow.

So, what about the application of exercise as a prescription for mental health recovery in the real world? Mr Maserow said because most people are private about mental health struggles, it can be difficult to see results in the same way as weight-loss.

“The improvements are subjective and much harder to measure. That is, until you get a client who walks through the doors and is open and honest about their struggles and experiences.

“I was lucky enough to have one of these young ladies walk through my door about four years ago.

“During our initial consultation, she was shy and quiet, although I do remember being surprised at how honest she was about her mental health struggles.

“She went from keeping to herself to this confident, sociable, assertive young lady, and as time went on, I could start to see some serious changes in her outlook.

“Four years on, she has lost over 20 kilos and more impressively has managed to keep it off.

“She is one of the fittest and strongest clients we have at our studio.

“There have been ups and downs, but that’s not unique to her and her mental health history.

“We all go through periods where our motivation is low, or life gets too busy, and our exercise and well-being takes a hit.

“What impresses me about her, though, is that even when these external distractions are going on in her life, she has kept her exercise routine and has pushed through those difficult patches.

“She is one of my most consistent and dedicated clients, and I feel a lot of that has to do with her feeling part of something,” said Mr Maserow.

Sally*, Mr Maserow’s client, said she had experienced mental health issues from the age of five, including obsessive-compulsive disorder and severe depression.

“I hit such a low that I left school in year 10 and spent all my time on the couch sleeping.

“Sleeping was the only time that I was free — no obsessive thoughts. No compulsions. No feelings of numbness.

“When I was awake, food was a way of comforting me. So, imagine, no moving around and a hell of a lot of eating.

“Not to mention a cocktail of medications that increased my hunger substantially.

“It got so bad that suicide started to sound like a good idea and that I wouldn't be upset if my life just suddenly ended,” said Sally.

It was at this point that Sally’s mother introduced her to Mr Maselow in the hope that he could help with an exercise routine.

“I did not want to go at all. I remember sitting in the induction listening to Greg explain that I needed to commit to every session and put in a lot of hard work, and in my head, I was saying 'yeah right, I'm not coming back here.’
“Somehow, I made it to my first session. By the end of it, I was tired, sweaty and sore.

“However, what I felt more, was a wave of endorphins rushing through my body. It was an amazing feeling.

“Slowly, as I attended more sessions consistently, my mental health was improving tenfold.

“It’s no secret that it’s been scientifically proven that exercise has profound positive effects on mental health, but actually feeling the improvement was amazing!

“I now never miss a session because I feel the effects immediately on my mind if I don't exercise.

“Four years later, I’m 21 kilos down, and in the best mental state I have ever been,” said Sally.


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Haley Williams

Haley Williams has a Bachelor of Communication in Journalism and over a decade of experience in the media, marketing and communications industries.

She is a widely published journalist with a particular interest in writing magazine features on parenting, health, fitness, nutrition and education.

Before becoming a freelance journalist, Haley worked as a writer for NeoLife (a worldwide nutrition company), News Limited and APN News & Media.

Haley also has extensive experience as an SEO Content Writer and Digital Marketing Strategist.