Running to the Top: Exercise and Mental Health

An apple a day keeps the doctor away! We’ve probably been given this advice or know others who have been given this advice time and time again… to eat healthier, and most importantly, to exercise. While exercise isn’t necessarily the cure for the world’s infections and diseases, it plays an important role in supporting and maintaining good health.

Depression is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide. Depression is associated with morbidity (eg cardiovascular disease) and premature mortality. Several mechanisms of action have been implicated in the pathophysiology of depression, including, but not limited to, inflammation, oxidative stress, genetics, and psychosocial factors.

Available literature indicates that physical activity can reduce the risk of developing depression. One meta-analysis reported a 17% lower chance of developing depression in individuals with more physical activity. However, this value changes depending on several factors in individual studies (eg target population, physical activity thresholds, exposure variables). A recent meta-analysis of 15 prospective cohort studies identified a dose-response relationship along a continuum between physical activity and the risk of depression.

Exercise can influence several pathways involved in the biology and pathophysiology of depression (eg neuroendocrine and inflammatory pathways, neural plasticity). Exercise is also said to improve psychosocial and behavioral aspects associated with depression.

For example, it has been suggested that physical activity improves self-esteem, such as body image; provide an outlet for coping and stress; and increase social activity. It has also been suggested that physical activity, and by extension the effect of the environment, can bring benefits (e.g. in a green space). Taken together, the results of this study have important implications for health professionals’ recommendations, as even activity levels below public health recommendations can yield significant improvements in mental health.

However, embracing change or embarking on a “fitness journey” can be challenging. To avoid getting overwhelmed and/or quitting, it’s important to take things one step at a time and start with a goal. Determine the objectives for this journey. Find activities that are fun for you. You don’t have to start with the toughest exercise; just find something fun and something you look forward to, like gardening or going for a walk with friends.

It is important not to view this journey as a chore and instead see it as a vehicle for healthy driving. Try to have positive associations with these activities. Then find a way to stay accountable, whether that be through a friend, a planner, or a tracker.

Setting reasonable goals with a sufficient timeline is also important. For example, start with small steps instead of waking up at 4 a.m. to go for a run at 3 a.m. Be realistic about the trip and stick to the plan, even if you miss a day. Being flexible and riding with the ups and downs is part of the journey. Staying consistent and making sure your routine is manageable is key. Celebrate the small victories along the way!

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About Leanna Luis

Leanna MW Lui, HBSc, has an HBSc Global Health Specialist degree from the University of Toronto, where she is now an MSc candidate. Her interests include mood disorders, health economics, public health and applications of artificial intelligence. In her spare time, she fences with the University of Toronto’s Varsity Fencing team and the Canadian Fencing Federation.

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