The role of physical activity on mental health

22 February 2023

Mental health is prevalent in the United States and globally with 26% of adults in the US experiencing mental illness in any given year (Johns Hopkins Medicine, 2021). 280 million people around the globe suffer from depression, which is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide (World Health Organization, 2021).

Mental illness increases mortality. A meta-analysis (Walker et al., 2015) showed that across 24 studies, a median of 10 years of life was lost among those with mental illnesses and that 14.3% of deaths worldwide were attributable to mental disorders. This makes mental disorders rank among the most substantial causes of death worldwide. On average, someone in the world dies from suicide every 40 seconds (World Health Organization). 

A scientific brief released by the World Health Organization estimates that global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25% during the pandemic.

By any measure, mental illness is an epidemic around the world, and our attempts to treat it are only partially successful.

There is an urgent need to:

  1. discover more effective interventions and identify better means to ease the suffering, societal cost, and suicide and

  2. identify better means of prevention and treatment.

Research overwhelmingly supports a beneficial role of exercise and increased physical activity for addressing mental health issues, particularly depression and anxiety, for which a combination of cardiovascular and aerobic exercise appears to be supported by the evidence. Exercise appears to improve mental health through social and self-efficacy pathways, as well as biological pathways – such as increasing brain neurotransmitters and improving hormone function involved in mental health.

Exercise and physical activity may reduce risks for mental illness – as well as helping to sustain mental wellness over time.

Physical health is clearly intertwined with mental health. Moving our bodies regularly is one of the key elements in the ecosystem of factors that keep us mentally and emotionally balanced

Exercise should: 

  • be integrated into the treatment of people with depressive symptoms or major depression;

  • be strongly considered for integration into treatment of symptoms of anxiety. 

Read the full report here:

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