exercise for better mental health

Exercise to Protect Your Mental Health

January 28, 2019

Studies show exercising can help improve your mental health and it might be easier than you think.

The Ottawa Citizen ran a headline ‘Depression in the Public Service — a Public Health Crisis.’ The World Health Organization has predicted that depression will be the number two cause of disability-adjusted life years (DALY) on the planet by the year 2020. Other research has found that the cost of stress to U.S. businesses is approximately $300 billion in lost productivity per year. All signs point to mental health as a major problem in today’s workforce.

Not surprisingly, countless initiatives have been launched to counteract this trend. However, there is one powerful and readily available strategy that is within our reach to manage stress. To take the pressure off the mind, one can engage the body.

Exercise not only benefits our bodies by keeping us physically healthy, it also strongly contributes to our mental well-being. Better yet, it can even provide a buffering effect against depression.

A 1999 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine specifically highlights the restorative impacts of exercise. Depressed patients were assigned to one of three groups: the first group received antidepressant medication, another group was instructed to exercise three times a week for 45 minutes, and the final group combined the medication and exercise regimens.

Four months after the intervention, the research team followed up with the participants to assess their psychological well-being. Each group experienced similar gains in their overall level of happiness, regardless of the condition to which they were assigned.

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Clearly, the fact that exercise was equally powerful as antidepressants in treating mental health issues was an impressive finding in itself. However, when the groups were tested six months later to determine their relapse rate, even the researchers were surprised.

Of the participants who took the medication, 38% had fallen back into depression. The combination group did not perform much better, as 31% had suffered a relapse. Surprisingly, the exercise group had the lowest relapse rates of only 9%. Not only did exercise elevate participants’ moods in the short-term, but it provided a lasting buffer against future episodes of depression.

Exercising for mental health is do-able

In our hectic lives, we may feel that time is a luxury few of us can afford. However, this study shows that enjoying the benefits of exercise may not be as time consuming as we think. To obtain the highly restorative gains associated with exercise, participants only needed to exercise three times a week for 45 minutes.

We can also work toward creating conditions for success. Essentially, can we design our environment to support our desire to exercise more?

A simple, yet effective strategy highlighted by Shawn Achor in his best-seller, The Happiness Advantage, is to go to bed with your gym clothes on so that when you wake up in the morning you can head straight to the gym. As an added bonus, exercising in the morning, before breakfast, has been found to be more beneficial for our bodies, leading to better weight loss and improved insulin management.

Another step involves auditing your calendar to determine when would be the best time to exercise and holding yourself accountable for following through. Integrating physical activity and exercising self-care into your calendars will serve you in the short- and long-term.


Being mindful of our mental health should be of paramount concern, yet often-times the pace of our personal and professional lives can interfere with that important goal. The above study suggests that setting aside time to exercise can support our mental and physical well-being. Even a relatively small investment can lead to a large payoff. Here’s to seeing you in the morning for a run before breakfast!


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Craig Dowden
An engaging and inspiring coach, Craig partners with leaders and executives to work on their most important challenges. He integrates the latest findings in the science of leadership, team, and organizational excellence into his coaching and consulting work. Craig Dowden Ph.D. focuses on bridging the gap between what science knows and what business does. His firm specializes in the custom design and delivery of evidence-based leadership development programs and services.

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