People who rarely exercise nearly twice as likely to be depressed, anxious

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LONDON — In the midst of a particularly anxious day, or a prolonged depressive episode, the notion of clearing one’s mind and gearing up for a workout can feel downright impossible. Ironically, a study finds forcing yourself to exercise may be the best thing to do in mentally turbulent times. Researchers at University College London conclude those with low aerobic and muscular fitness are twice as likely to experience depression.

People who rarely exercise are 60 percent more likely to report feelings of intense anxiety over a seven-year follow-up period.

“Here we have provided further evidence of a relationship between physical and mental health, and that structured exercise aimed at improving different types of fitness is not only good for your physical health, but may also have mental health benefits,” says lead study author Aaron Kandola, a PhD student at UCL, in a media release.

Healthy body, health mind

Study authors examined data on 152,978 people between the ages of 40 and 69. To start, the study tested each person’s aerobic fitness using a stationary bike with increasing resistance. Muscular strength was measured according to grip strength. The participants then answered questionnaires gauging depression and anxiety symptoms. The team measured these levels again seven years later.

Participants in particularly strong aerobic and muscular shape at the beginning of the study showed much better mental health seven years later than their less active peers.

In comparison to the most fit participants, adults showing the lowest levels of both fitness measures to start were 98 percent more likely to report depression seven years later. This group was also 60 percent more likely to experience anxiety and 81 percent more likely to experience at least one of the two disorders.

“Our findings suggest that encouraging people to exercise more could have extensive public health benefits, improving not only our physical health but our mental health too. Improving fitness through a combination of cardio exercise and strength and resistance training appears to be more beneficial than just focusing on aerobic or muscular fitness,” notes senior author Dr. Joseph Hayes.

A regular exercise routine may be the key to mental health

Other potentially influential factors considered included diet, mental health history, socioeconomic status, and any prior chronic illnesses.

This certainly isn’t the first study to conclude exercise fosters robust mental health, but most prior projects had asked participants to self-report their exercise habits. This study set itself apart by collecting fitness level information itself.

“Reports that people are not as active as they used to be are worrying, and even more so now that global lockdowns have closed gyms and limited how much time people are spending out of the house. Physical activity is an important part of our lives and can play a key role in preventing mental health disorders,” Kandola concludes. “Other studies have found that just a few weeks of regular intensive exercise can make substantial improvements to aerobic and muscular fitness, so we are hopeful that it may not take much time to make a big difference to your risk of mental illness.”

The study is published in BMC Medicine.