The mental health benefits of exercise

While the physical health benefits of exercise are well established, the mental health consequences of regular physical activity have been less clear.   Together with partners in both London and Norway, we have recently completed undertaking a series of very large studies examining how physical activity, both leisure time and in the workplace, may protect against the development of common mental disorders such as depression and anxiety.  These studies involved over 40,000 adult participants, making them some of the largest research studies to investigate this topic.  We found that undertaking regular leisure time physical activity was associated with reduced rates of depression, but not anxiety.  The majority of this protective effect occurred at relatively low levels of physical activity, regardless of the type or intensity of activity undertaken.  However, the context of physical activity was important, with no association observed between occupationally-related physical activity and common mental disorders.  These results have a number of important implications and show that relatively modest changes in population levels of physical activity could have significant public mental health benefits.