World Rowing is supporting 10 October 2020; World Mental Health Day by talking about the advantages of exercise to our mental wellbeing.

For many years the science behind the benefits of exercise on mental health was blurry at best. Clinical trials were hard to come by and the evidence was mostly anecdotal. In recent years, psychologists have been working to clinically prove the benefits of exercise on mental health and there are some promising, albeit limited, results.

In a review of recent studies on exercise and mental health (1), it was shown that exercise has positive effects on ‘mood states’ such as anxiety, stress and depression. This might seem logical, but the science helps explain the physiological and biochemical pathways through which it occurs. For example, exercise releases endorphins, which have a beneficial effect, essentially creating a ‘euphoric’ or ‘happy’ feeling. Exercise can also dampen the adrenal ‘stress’ response, which can help in reducing stress and anxiety. Furthermore, exercise may also help to reduce inflammation. Increased inflammation has been shown to lead to worse health outcomes and mood-related issues.

So while we have known anecdotally for years that exercises results in better mental health, the agglomeration of scientific studies that corroborate this assertion is now available.

The positive effects of exercise on mental health, however, may be limited to mild and moderate mental health conditions. Another review of clinical studies found that exercise was only slightly more effective than other treatments for cases of severe depression (2). The author suggests that more research is necessary to fully understand the type of exercise and the effects in cases of severe depression. And that exercise may need to be incorporated within a broader treatment plan.

Aside from severe cases of mental health, the science indicates the full benefits of an exercise regime. But what do they mean by ‘exercise’? It might surprise the average rower.

In the majority of studies, exercise refers to cardiovascular movement – such as walking, running, cycling or rowing, but not to strength movements such as weightlifting. And the intensity of the exercise regimes are relatively low. That means about 20 minutes of moderate cardiovascular exercise three times per week. There are also some studies that indicate ‘coordination’ exercise such as yoga or tai chi can improve anger, confusion, tension and depression.

This means that you do not need to an hour of power on the erg every day to see the mental health benefits of exercise – a much shorter duration will do the trick.

In fact, there may be too much of a good thing. Extreme amounts of exercise can have detrimental effects (1), such as increased inflammation. And obsession with exercise can also lead to negative mental health outcomes such as increased anxiety.

The National Health Service in the United Kingdom suggests striving for 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week (3). They explain that exercise and mental health can be a Catch 22. When suffering from depression or anxiety, it might be more difficult to find the energy for exercise. Finding an activity that suits you, or that you can easily begin is one way to get over that initial hurdle. Another common suggestion is to look for group activities, although this may be limited due to the coronavirus.

The NHS provides a good library of English-language resources for dealing with depression, anxiety and other mental health problems, visit their website here: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/.

If you are suffering from mental health problems, please seek help. The World Health Information has resources available here: https://www.who.int/campaigns/world-mental-health-day/world-mental-health-day-2020. You can also google mental health in your native language to search for resources near you.

1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29150166/
2. https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD004366.pub6/full
3. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/exercise-for-depression/