New Study Confirms The Power Of Exercise For Improving Mental Health

mbg Associate Movement & Wellness Editor By Ray Bass, NASM-CPT
mbg Associate Movement & Wellness Editor

Ray Bass is the associate movement and wellness editor at mindbodygreen and a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer. She holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania, with honors in nonfiction.

Image by Jacob Lund

Any discovery in the realm of mental health is, as I see it, something to celebrate. And if that something happens to be a noninvasive, all-natural treatment for psychiatric patients, all the better. I like to think that the more we talk about mental health, the more researchers and scientists will seek to learn about it—and the more we know, the closer we get to helping people feel better.

That's why this latest study from the University of Vermont is particularly compelling. Researchers there found physical exercise, when used as a tool for treatment and intervention, was remarkably effective at alleviating mental-health-related symptoms of patients within inpatient psychiatric facilities. So effective, that study authors believe that it could "reduce patients' time admitted to acute facilities and reliance on psychotropic medications."

The study notes that in psychiatric facilities, practitioners will typically prescribe medications as a first line of defense for mitigating symptoms such as anger, anxiety, and depression, as opposed to natural remedies like exercise.

David Tomasi, psychotherapist and inpatient psychiatry group therapist at the University of Vermont Medical Center and lead researcher of the study, notes that practitioners at these facilities tend to "rely on classical psychotherapeutic and pharmacological frameworks to treat psychiatric symptoms, which they monitor to determine when a patient is ready to be discharged from the facility."

He also believes that there are very few inpatient psychiatric hospitals in the U.S. that have psychotherapist-supported gym facilities for patients.

In this study, Tomasi and his team built an exercise facility for 100 patients from the UVM medical center's inpatient psychiatry unit. They then led patients through a 60-minute workout and introduced nutrition education programs into their treatment plans. Psychotherapists analyzed self-reported patient data, including how patients described their mood, self-esteem, and self-image before and after exercising.

As predicted—given what we know about the psychological benefits of exercise—patients came away from the workouts with decreased levels of anger, anxiety, and depression, as well as higher self-esteem and improved moods.

There's no denying that medication has a time and place for whoever needs it, especially those dealing with serious psychiatric conditions. But admittedly, it's pretty incredible to see how powerful exercise is and how much influence it can have over our psychological state and the inner workings of our brains. We see this study as a huge leap in the right direction—a gateway to uncovering more natural therapies and (hopefully) improving treatment plans for both psychiatric patients and anyone struggling with mental health.

"The priority is to provide more natural strategies for the treatment of mood disorders, depression, and anxiety," says Tomasi. "In practice, we hope that every psychiatric facility will include integrative therapies—in our case, exercise in particular—as the primary resource for their patients' psycho-physical well-being."

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