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The Latest on Exercise and Mental Health

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research review recently hit the stands. It shows that physical activity is 1.5 times more effective than counselling or the leading medications in treating mental health symptoms. That’s a pretty big deal, so let’s make sure that the research passes muster.

In a systematic review, multiple studies are looked at at the same time. Poor quality ones are chucked out and good quality ones are looked at side-by-side. This gives us a bird’s eye view of all the (quality) research. For these reasons, systematic reviews are near the tippy-top of the evidence hierarchy.

Pro tip: if you find yourself in an internet argument with someone clutching a bad study, you don’t have to argue methodology. Just ask them to join you in looking for a systemic review of the subject.

Super-pro tip: do this to yourself—especially when a conclusion confirms your biases.

Now that we’ve contextualized research reviews, this was actually an umbrella review, which is crammed right into the very top of that little black pyramid. In an umbrella review, a bunch of researchers—in this case from the University of South Australia—grab multiple systematic reviews, chuck out the ones with incongruent data, organize the rest, and provide a serious evidence-driven look at what’s going on. Here, 97 reviews, over a thousand trials, and over 128,000 participants were included.

I have a dog in this race, which is why I don’t write about every pro-exercise study; I risk being too excited about something with low practical effects. A lot of studies are also pretty meh. However, this one—sent to me by one of our members in the mental health field (thank you, Samra!)—is tremendous.

Here are some quick takeaways:

  • The first 12 weeks offer the greatest bang for the buck. So, rather than needing to invest a ton of time up front to get going, you’ll get near-immediate traction. You have to give yourself a chance!
  • The most significant benefits were seen in people with depression; pregnant and postpartum women; and people diagnosed with HIV or kidney disease.
  • Already being healthy made it easier to start.
  • “Higher intensity exercise had greater improvements for depression and anxiety.”
  • “Importantly, the research shows that it doesn’t take much for exercise to make a positive change to your mental health.”

A few thoughts from me:

  • Exercise is one of your most powerful tools for influencing genetic expression. Your ancestors made it through a pretty ridiculous amount of natural selection to be here. Now you’ve got that legacy in your genetic bank account. Exercise can help you put that currency into circulation without risk of a bank run.
  • If you are starting from a lower level of physical conditioning, higher frequency, shorter duration exercise should speed up your initial progress.
  • I suspect that higher intensity exercise—done for short bursts—works for three fundamental reasons:
  1. It is sufficiently powerful to trigger adaptation and gene expression
  2. It is the practice of facing difficult tasks—and taken on by choice
  3. Done properly, it makes it absolutely impossible to worry about anything beyond finishing your next interval

It’s not always easy to take a compliment, credit your own progress, or have the confidence to move forward. You’re not always convinced by words—and maybe you shouldn’t be. However, you can seen and feel the actions behind progress in real-time. Even more importantly, you can take an evidence-based view of what works for you as an individual. After all, not everything needs an umbrella review.

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