Low levels of muscular and aerobic fitness linked to higher risks of depression and anxiety, finds study
This link between exercise and mental health goes beyond the notion that exercise makes you feel good
Exercise is great for physical health. Without it, your muscles weaken, your bones lose their strength and you gain weight. This is all common knowledge now and the benefits of exercise and fitness for physiological health are acknowledged the world over. But did you know that exercise and physical fitness have an intricate yet definite link with mental health too?
Exercise, fitness and mental health
This link between exercise and mental health goes beyond the notion that exercise makes you feel good. A study published in World Psychiatry in 2016 suggests that exercise for mental health is very different from exercises done for, say, weight loss.
The study says that while moderate-intensity exercises generate feelings of pleasure and satisfaction, high-intensity exercises are more draining and can lead to displeasure.
This is precisely the reason why other studies, like the one published in the Journal of Lifestyle Medicine in 2020, recommend that exercise regimens should be specifically structured to suit the needs of people with depressive or mood disorders.
This study revealed that although exercise helps release the hormone called endorphins, which can act as an analgesic and sedative and reduce the burden of medications which depression patients often have, adherence to regular exercise regimens is likely to be low among those with mental health issues. It is therefore doubly important to tailor exercise protocols according to each patient’s needs.
Fitness and risks of depression
While an overwhelming number of studies confirm this positive correlation between moderate exercise, improved fitness and better management of mental health, others point out that lack of exercise can not only lead to reduced fitness levels but also increase risks of mental health disorders.
The findings of a new study published in BMC Medicine confirm such a connection of cardiorespiratory fitness and grip strength with common mental health disorders.
The study included 152,978 participants from the UK Biobank whose health status, particularly physical fitness levels and mental health, were followed for a period of seven years. The researchers used an exercise test and a dynamometer to measure the cardiorespiratory fitness and grip strength of the participants respectively. To examine their mental health status, they used the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 and Generalised Anxiety Disorder-7 scales, as recommended by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Edition V (DSM-V).
After seven years of follow-up, the researchers found that low combined fitness levels of cardio-respiration and grip strength were associated with 1.8 times higher odds of developing a common mental health disorder. Those with medium fitness levels also had higher odds of the same disorders.
Low combined fitness levels were also found to be associated with 2.6 times higher odds of developing depression and 1.6 times higher odds of suffering from anxiety disorders. The study also suggests that the associations between grip strength and anxiety disorders were particularly strong among women and older adults.
The researchers, therefore, recommend that being active is vital for the prevention of mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. This, they point out in a press release, is even more necessary given the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to global lockdowns and limited mobility.
Staying physically fit by exercising regularly despite the pandemic still raging can be a key method of preventing or managing mental health issues that other studies have proved to be increasing during the pandemic.
For more information, read our article on Fitness.
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