Published January 25, 2023

Just a bit of exercise can improve mental health, scientists, psychologists say

Some exercise scientists and psychologists say many of the messages we get about fitness don't help

By Nicole Ireland

It's that time of year when gloomy weather and New Year's resolutions gone by the wayside leave many of us not feeling our best. Even if we know that exercise will help us feel better, getting up and moving can feel like too much of a challenge, especially for those suffering from anxiety or depression.

Some exercise scientists and psychologists say many of the messages we get about fitness don't help.

“There's really strong evidence that exercise can be beneficial to help reduce depression and anxiety symptoms,” said Jennifer Heisz, Canada Research Chair in Brain Health and Aging in the department of kinesiology at McMaster University.

"(But) I think it's very off-putting when you look at the exercise guidelines for physical health and you think that you need to achieve those for mental health."

The World Health Organization recommends that adults between 18 and 64 should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, plus muscle-strengthening activities at least twice a week.   

ParticipACTION, an organization promoting physical activity, said it takes much less than that to gain mental-health benefits, but many people don't know that. It commissioned an online survey of 1,526 adult Canadians conducted by Leger, which found that 36 per cent of respondents thought they needed to exercise for more than half an hour to "feel the mental boost."

Not true, said Leigh Vanderloo, an exercise scientist with ParticipACTION. 

Taking 10 to 15 minutes a day to move your body "is going to have some pretty promising effects from a mental-health impact,” Vanderloo said. 

“There's no such thing as bad movement," she said. "Think of all the opportunities you have in your day already that you could be moving more.”

That could mean taking a quick walk around the office between meetings, parking a bit further away when you're picking up the kids from school, running upstairs, raking leaves, housecleaning, gardening or dancing, Vanderloo said.   

"Every step counts," said Heisz.

For people with clinical depression or anxiety, "exercise can be a great add-on therapy to take in addition to medication," she said. But those conditions can also make it hard to get off the couch. 

"Trying to get motivated to exercise is really difficult, especially if you think it's this big one-hour or tough workout that you have to do to get the benefits, when in fact it's not," Heisz said.

Dr. Zarina Giannone, a Vancouver psychologist specializing in sports, performance and exercise, agrees that one of the barriers is having the energy and "inner resources" needed to get active. 

"With folks like that, it's just so important to really, first of all, start very small and very slow," she said.

"I've encouraged people to just do really small things — things that already (are) built into the world, like going for walks, doing some of that exercise within the home, using body weight, like things like that,” she said. 

If people want to try going to the gym but are feeling overwhelmed, Giannone suggests they start with 15 minutes twice a week — and they may just spend that time walking around and becoming familiar with the space.

"And then the next week, it's maybe building on that. But it's gradual, it's slow," she said.  

It's also important for people to be "flexible" if they're making fitness goals, said Pier-Éric Chamberland, chair of the sport and exercise section of the Canadian Psychological Association.

Otherwise, they can fall into the trap of "all or nothing," he said. 

If you were planning to do a 45-minute workout but find yourself short on time, don't just dismiss exercise that day, Chamberland recommended.  

Instead, take the 15 minutes you do have and do something else like walking, he said.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way many think about exercise, said Heisz. 

"There was a shift in why people wanted to work out," she said. "So instead of working out for their physical health — like to be stronger or fitter — they wanted to work out for their mental health."

That's a healthy change from the focus on weight loss so many people have, Vanderloo said.

"I'd like to see more of a shift towards, you know, 'I get active for my mental health, for stress management,'" she said.

"These are all benefits that come with getting active that have nothing to do with weight."

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Alex Lupul

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2023.

Canadian Press health coverage receives support through a partnership with the Canadian Medical Association. CP is solely responsible for this content.

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