Vitality

Mental Health Patients Want To Use Exercise As Treatment, Scientists Find

People with mental health issues want to exercise more, and they want their doctors’ help to use physical activity to relieve their anxiety, according to a new study.

Researchers who surveyed almost 300 patients at a mental health clinic found that about 85 percent of them felt that physical activity improved their mood or their anxiety level, according to a study in the journal General Hospital Psychology. The same percentage wanted to be more active, but less than half of the patients questioned were doing at least 2.5 hours of exercise every week, a minimum recommended level of physical activity.

“Physical activity has been shown to be effective in alleviating mild to moderate depression and anxiety,” lead study author Carol Janney said in a statement from Michigan State University. “Current physical activity guidelines advise at least 30 minutes, five days a week to promote mental and physical health, yet many of those surveyed weren’t meeting these recommendations.”

One problem could be motivation — the study noted that a majority of the patients found that their mood made it difficult for them to engage in physical activity. And most of them did not talk to their mental health providers about the subject, but expressed a desire to have at least one conversation on the subject.

“Most [mental health] outpatients may need and want assistance in increasing [physical activity],” the study explained. “Patient-centered research could inform the development of [physical activity] programs in [mental health] settings.”

Adding exercise programs also could improve patients’ physical health and would represent a more holistic approach to tackling mental health conditions.

“Mental health treatment programs need to partner with fitness programs to support their patients’ willingness to exercise more,” senior author Marcia Valenstein said in the MSU statement. “This support might come from integrating personal trainers into mental health clinics or having strong partnerships with the YMCA or other community recreational facilities.”

If they are trained and capable, mental health providers like psychiatrists could also make exercise plans for their patients and check in with them to see if they are following the plans and reaching their goals. For the providers who are not experts in exercise, “teaming up with certified personal trainers or other exercise programs, it may help them prescribe or offer more recommendations for physical activity in the clinic setting,” Janney said.

Previous research has shown a link between exercise and improved mental health, whether it be a simple walk outside or a more intense workout at a gym, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America notes. Physical activity has been shown to reduce stress and can work as well as antianxiety or antidepressant medication for some people.

Valenstein called mental health professionals not talking about exercise a “missed opportunity” to reduce depression and anxiety.

“Several insurers already do this for diabetes prevention,” she said, “so it’s not out of the question.”

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