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Common Mental Disorders Improved by Physical Activity

A new study assessed whether increased physical activity could improve mental health and found that meeting the UK physical activity recommendations significantly lowered levels of psychological distress and common mental disorders.

Common mental disorders (CMDs) encompass certain types of depression and anxiety that do not meet the criteria for a normal psychiatric diagnosis. Despite not being medically recognized as specific conditions, common mental disorders cause significant emotional distress to individuals by causing physical, social, and occupational disabilities. Common mental disorders are also more prevalent than major psychiatric disorders, occurring in approximately 1 in 6 adults in England.

Recently, researchers have begun to explore a link between mental health and physical activity. The 2011 physical activity guidelines in the UK recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes a week of vigorous activity, and two days of muscle exercise per week. Observational studies suggest that active individuals gain substantial mental health benefits, even if they fall below these criteria. For example, physical activity just 1-2 times per week was associated with a 40% reduced risk of depression. This regime of activity is popularly phrased as the ‘weekend warrior’ activity pattern as individuals tend to complete all their exercise on the weekends.

A new study published in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity explored whether mental health could, in fact, be improved by physical activity 1-2 times per week. In this study, adult participants completed household-based surveys between the years of 1994 to 2004. Physical activity was self-reported and psychological health was measured by the 12 item General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12).

Interestingly, this study found an association between physical activity and improvements in mental health at the recommended physical activity guidelines – individuals who met the UK physical activity criteria reported lower levels of psychological distress. This relationship existed regardless of whether this activity was accumulated in 1-2 days per week or spread out in small daily doses. Further, they found that in participants who are managing chronic illnesses, mental health benefits were optimized at even lower doses of physical activity (below the physical activity guidelines).

Importantly, these results suggest that increased physical activity is important for mental health.  It also demonstrated that even a “weekend warrior” type of exercise regime can significantly reduce common mental disorders.  Additionally, the presence of chronic disease is an important factor in modifying the associations between mental health and physical activity. Notably, there is a strong intra-individual variation in response to exercise; therefore, when prescribing exercise, physicians should tailor approaches to individual preferences and time availability while accounting for the presence of pre-existing health conditions.

Written by Neeti Vashi, BSc


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