Clear association between fitness and mental health: study

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Public health measures aimed at improving physical fitness could also reduce the incidence of common mental health disorders, experts say.

Researchers found a significant association between a participant’s initial physical condition and mental health seven years later.


“Fitness could be… a modifiable risk factor for common mental disorders in the population.

“Public health approaches aimed at improving physical fitness through combined aerobic and resistance activities could reduce the incidence of common mental disorders and improve the physical health outcomes of people with mental health symptoms. “

These are the findings of a new, large-scale, seven-year prospective cohort study published in BMC Medicine.

For this study, the researchers analyzed data from a subset of UK biobank participants, representing a total of 152,978 people.

At the start of the study, participants underwent tests to measure their cardiorespiratory capacity (CRF) and grip strength, which was used as an indicator of muscle strength.

They also completed two standard clinical questionnaires relating to anxiety and depression at this time.

Seven years later, researchers again assessed each person’s anxiety and depression using the same two clinical questionnaires and found a significant association between a participant’s initial fitness and mental health at seven years. later.

In fact, participants who were classified as having low CRF and low muscle strength on the initial assessment had a 98% higher risk of suffering from depression and a 60% higher risk of suffering from anxiety.

Although CRF and muscle strength individually impacted mental health, the authors say that by viewing them as “separate exposures, the effect sizes were smaller.”

“We found that compared to a high CRF, a low CRF was associated with a 1.5 times higher probability of incidence of common mental disorders and low grip strength with a 1.4 times higher probability” , wrote the authors.

“We also found that associations with grip strength and anxiety disorders had higher odds ratios for women than for men, and for older adults than younger ones.”

Although the study demonstrated a correlation between fitness and improved mental health outcomes, it did not show a causal link.

Aaron Kandola, a doctoral student in the Division of Psychiatry at University College London and lead author of the study, says this research provides “further evidence” for a relationship between physical and mental health.

‘[S]Structured exercise aimed at improving different types of fitness is not only good for your physical health, but can also have beneficial effects on mental health, ”he said.

“Physical activity… can play a key role in preventing mental health problems”.

Dr Tim Jones, a Tasmanian general practitioner with a special interest in mental health, agrees.

“There is already a fair amount of literature on this subject; this [study] adds to that, ”he said gp news.

He says there are “very strong links” between exercise and mental health and that this relationship occurs for a number of reasons.

“There are certainly chemical and hormonal mechanisms that are activated in our body when we exercise, such as dopamine, which are linked to our mood or sense of well-being,” he said. .

Dr-Tim-Jones-Article-1.jpgDr Tim Jones says this research adds extra weight to the link between fitness and improved mental health.

Dr Jones says exercise provides additional psychological benefits, such as a sense of accomplishment when goals are met.

‘This has a psychological flow [effect] to then give us more energy and motivation to help us with some of the other challenges that we have, ”he said.

Dr Jones says the mental health benefits of exercise are even greater when they are part of a group activity, as it provides participants with a sense of connection with others, external responsibility and motivation. improved.

“We can also see an increased sense of community and support in patients, which is one of the things that I have seen in my own patients,” he said.

Dr Jones says that such support can “be responsible for really significant improvements in people’s well-being.”

He says community-based exercises “with a focus on mental health” such as Go4Fun and the parkrun program target people who have physical or mental health issues, or both.

“And the first results of some of the programs that have been going for about 12 to 18 months have shown some really dramatic and lasting improvements,” he said.

These improvements can be linked to the friendships that are formed with other members through such experiences.

“And then they continue to do this kind of work more independently, and it’s great for us to see because we know it’s going to get long term results that also benefit people,” he said. declared.

“So we really hope to see more of these programs being rolled out in a larger context.”

Dr Jones hopes this research will further encourage clinicians to recommend fitness as part of a treatment plan for people with mental health problems, and to help prevent such problems.

While he acknowledges that there are barriers to exercising, especially for patients with mental health issues, he says it is a worthwhile activity.

Instead of recommending a particular exercise as a general measure, Dr Jones says it’s important for clinicians to help patients look for ways to incorporate exercise into their daily lives while “working within the limits of”. what their motivation and their energy will allow them to do ‘.

‘Each treatment [should be] individualized to the person we work with, ”said Dr. Jones.

“But we do know that people recover from mental health problems faster if exercise is part of their treatment plan.”

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