The Power of Exercise: Prescription for Mental Health

The Power of Exercise: Prescription for Mental Health
By Erin Phelan

By Erin Phelan

Fitness Industry Council of Canada

As we mark Mental Health Awareness this month, the power of exercise is well-researched and undeniable, and repeated studies point to physical activity to be as effective for the prevention and treatment of many mental health conditions – from anxiety to stress, substance abuse and depression.


We live in a world where the prevalence of mental health disorders is all around us – it is estimated that one in five Canadians currently are experiencing a mental health issue, and that half of Canadians will by the time they hit 40; the pandemic took a toll on the health of Canadians, and in the last decade Statistics Canada has reported a significant decline in people reporting good mental health.


But the last decade has also shown us great strides in understanding the impact of exercise on our mental well-being. A comprehensive review published in the British Medical Journal synthesized findings from 218 unique studies, reaffirming what the fitness industry knows, and works hard daily to achieve: A positive impact in the mental health of their clients Physical activity is a potent tool in the fight against mental health.


Studies have proven the mood-boosting effects of exercise – from the release of chemicals to the brain, including Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin and Endorphins – DOSE chemicals, the neurotransmitters that are attributed to not only lowering levels of stress and anxiety, but also improving the ability to sleep (lack of quality sleep is often directly correlated with poor mental health but also increasing the feel good chemical in our brain – the endocannabinoids). A 2023 study found that aerobic exercise significantly increased endocannabinoids in the brain, enhancing not only mood but significantly reducing stress in healthy individuals.


It is overly simplified to say to someone suffering from mental health:  Go for a run. Hit the gym. You will feel better.


But what if someone is caught in the trap of their mind?


Depression, a pervasive mental illness affecting millions, can feel like inescapable darkness, where the mind is in a fog of despair. Traditional treatments like therapy and medication have proven effective for many, yet a substantial portion of sufferers find relief elusive. But studies are showing that exercise doesn’t just elevate mood temporarily; it instigates enduring changes in the brain.


Perhaps it is time we consider dosing the DOSE of exercise?


And what about the benefits of working with a trained professional?


The 2023 meta-analysis published in the British Medical Journal revealed that supervised group or ungroup moderate or vigorous aerobic or resistance training for 45-60 minutes 3-5 times a week, has been shown to have antidepressant effects and has shown that any physical activity is better than none. In addition, physical activity undertaken with the supervision of a trained professional has maximum benefits for mental health.


A similar study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that running had similar effects comparable to antidepressants; and another meta-analysis published in Frontiers in Psychiatry found that 30 to 60 minutes of resistance training, done 3 to 4 times a week for more than six weeks was the most effective training to improve depression in youth.


In spite of the mounting evidence, you often can’t outthink the mind, which directly impacts the body. Those suffering from depression or struggling with mental health will often have co-symptoms such as low energy, lack of motivation, perceived fatigue and more. The meta-analysis shows that exercise interventions, while also addressing physiological and psychological barriers, offered great potential.


Furthermore, the study recommended a move toward prescribing and dosing exercise for people with mental health conditions, whereby clinicians specify Frequency, Intensity, Time and Type of Exercise for patients – with the gentle reminder that any exercise is better than none. Working with a trained fitness professional offers the added benefit of ensuring motivation and adherence, where progress can be monitored.


The power exercise has to shift the brain from negative to positive is irrefutable, exercise also has the ability to take us out of the mind and into our body. Exercise increases feelings of empowerment and success – engaging in regular exercise is one of the greatest acts of self-care, helping the individual create a path of healing. 


And while exercise is not a replacement for medication or therapy, it should be considered a necessary, complementary approach in treating and preventing mental health conditions. Exercise is truly a beacon of hope, and a road forward we can all take together.


As we honor Mental Health Awareness Month, let’s take concrete steps towards improving mental health in Canada and celebrating the role the fitness industry can have in effecting change.

Fitness Industry Council of Canada (FIC) is the not-for profit trade association that represents the voice of fitness facility operators across Canada. Representing more than 6,000 facilities with more than six-million members nationwide, FIC pursues a legislative agenda in the hope of bettering the fitness industry for both consumers and operators. FIC aims to work with both industry and government to improve the health and physical activity levels of Canadians.

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