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Exercise can help prevent and treat mental health problems, and exercising outdoors further enhances these benefits

Mental health issues have an impact one in five people every year. The Canadian Mental Health Association estimates that by the age of 40, about half of people will either have a mental illness or are currently dealing with it.

Behavioral therapy and medication are common first treatment options. However, research has shown the importance of exercise not only in the prevention of mental illnesses, but also in their treatment. And when exercising outdoors, the benefits can be even greater.

Mental illnesses they include depression, addictions and anxiety, as well as personality disorders. Of these, anxiety and depression are the most common, with depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. If left untreated, these diseases can lead to physical illness and premature death.

My research focuses on the benefits of physical activity for disease prevention and management, and ways to make it easier for people to be active. In December 2021, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, and exercise and being in nature were key to my recovery.

Exercise can make you happy

Soccer players are training on the field
It also doesn’t matter what kind of activity you do. Whether it’s team sports, cycling, walking, running or aerobics, they all have benefits.

Exercise and activity have long been known to improve mood. A study of more than 1.2 million adults in the United States reported that those who exercised had 1.5 days less in the last month of poor mental health. And the greatest benefits occurred in those people who exercised 45 minutes or more three or more days a week.

But even shorter sessions can make a difference. Just ten minutes of activity was enough improve happiness. Over time, regular exercise can pay off you are less likely to get depression and anxiety. It also doesn’t matter what kind of activity you do. Whether it’s team sports, cycling, walking, running or aerobics, they all have benefits. Even active household chores can reduce the chances of depression.

Exercise as a treatment for mental illness

Numerous studies point to exercise as an effective treatment for people with existing depression and other mental illnesses. A meta-analysis found only four weeks exercise reduces symptoms of depression in persons with major depressive disorder. That’s less time than most antidepressants take to start working.

Outside, a woman in exercise equipment, with a towel around her neck
Numerous studies point to exercise as an effective treatment for people with existing depression and other mental illnesses.

Although exercise is beneficial at all levels of intensity, it appears higher intensity exercise may be more effective than low intensity exercise. Strength training can also reduce symptoms in people with depression. And a recent review of studies with a total of 128,119 participants reported exercise is as effective as antidepressants for the treatment of mild depression. Exercise has also been found to reduce symptoms in people with clinical anxiety and schizophrenia.

How exercise improves mental well-being

Exercise can improve mental well-being due to the release of hormones and brain function. Exercise results in release endorphins and endocannabinoids. Endorphins are feel-good hormones that reduce pain or discomfort associated with activity. Endocannabinoids work on the same system as marijuana, reducing pain and improving mood.

in the brain, low levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) et un smaller hippocampus are associated with numerous mental illnesses. BDNF is important for the growth of nerves in the brain and the development of new neuronal connections, while the hippocampus is associated with learning, memory and mood. Exercise can increase BDNF levels in people with depressionmore increasing the volume of the hippocampus.

Take it outside

Exercising in nature can further improve psychological well-being. Rumination is a negative pattern of repetitive thinking and dwelling on things. It is associated with higher odds of mental illness, but can be reduced with take a walk in the natural environment. And people who spent at least two hours in nature during the week reported higher well-being compared to those who had no contact with nature.

A man with a backpack is standing on a wooded path.
Parks Canada has recognized the benefits of outdoor exercise by partnering with a health organization to allow doctors to prescribe Adult Parks Canada Discovery Passes to patients to allow them to spend time outside.

There are a number of reasons why nature is good for us. Trees are known to emit compounds called phytoncides, which are associated with multiple health benefits. In the Appendix, cortisol (stress hormone) levels are reduced with only 20 minutes spent in the park.

The value of being outdoors for physical and mental health was recognized by Canadian parks in January 2022, when in partnership with PaRxan organization run by healthcare professionals who prescribe time in nature for their patients, in order to enable doctors prescribe Adult Parks Canada Discovery Passes.

With these passes, patients can access Canada’s national parks, national historic sites and national marine protected areas. This follows similar programs in many other countries such as New Zealand, Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom.

With all the mental health benefits of exercise and nature, it’s important to recognize that simple everyday tasks can be challenging for some people with mental illness. For these people, taking antidepressants and behavioral therapies may be more appropriate. But for others, exercising in nature is a simple and cost-effective activity for maintaining mental health and treating mental illness.

Scott Lear blogs every two weeks Become the healthiest and co-host of a monthly podcast How Health.

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