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Mental Health and Exercise

Exercise is crucial in improving both mental and physical health outcomes for people with mental illness. Mental health illness accounts for the third highest disease burden behind cancer and cardiovascular disease. People with mental illness are three times more likely to suffer from diabetes, five times more likely to have high cholesterol, twice as likely to be affected by cardiovascular disease and obesity and 23% of people who suffer from mental health illness suffer from arthritis.

Studies have shown that 60% percent of people halve their depression score by exercising regularly and more than 40% sustain this improvement for over 3 months.

One mechanism of the mood enhancing effects of exercise was linked to increased neurotrophic factor (BDNF) (Lipsky and Marini 2007) leading to increased neuronal survival, decreased stress activity and allostatic load. Exercise may also directly influence allostatic load by decreasing sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamic-pituitary-adranal axis activity (Tsatsoulis and Fountoulakis 2006). This mechanism is not dissimilar to that of anti-depressant medication.

Another potential mechanism comes from psychological means by reducing anxiety sensitivity by providing a distraction to unhelpful thoughts, improved body image, social reinforcement, experience of mastery of a skill or activity and improving coping strategies (Stathopoulou et al. 2006; Asmundson et al. 2013 Zschucke et al. 2013).

Evidence is mounting for the efficiency and acceptability of GP prescribed exercise for patients with mental illness as a first line treatment as part of a multi-disciplinary approach to mental health treatment. Exercise programs should be individualised, supervised with a focus on frequency, duration and exercise intensity.

Brent Weeks
Exercise Physiologist
Recover Sports Medicine

If you have any questions regarding this post, or wish to book in to see our Exercise Physiologist, please call us on 1300 858 774 or email contact@recoversportsmed.com.au

ESSA position statement on Exercise Treatment for Patients with Mental Health Illness
(Robert Stanton, Simon Rosenbaum, Megan Kalucy, Peter Raeburn, Brenda Happel)
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