Exercise as mental health therapy a "missed opportunity," researchers find

Institutions in both Canada and the United States are struggling to keep up with the increasing student demand for mental health services.

The share of undergraduates reporting "overwhelming anxiety" rose from 50% in 2011 to 62% in 2016, according to a report from the American College Health Association.

One critical part of the solution could be placing more emphasis on exercise in patients' treatment plans, according to a new study from Michigan State University (MSU) and the University of Michigan (U-M).

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To conduct the study, researchers surveyed 295 patients receiving treatment from a mental health clinic about their desire to be more physically active, how exercise affects their mood, and whether they would like their therapist to offer more guidance related to exercise.

The researchers found that 85% of respondents wanted to exercise more, and more than 80% believed exercise made a difference in their mood or anxiety level. About half of respondents said they wanted at least one discussion with their therapist about exercise, and some patients wanted even more.

The findings are supported by prior research that has found a direct connection between exercise and improved mood.

"Physical activity has been shown to be effective in alleviating mild to moderate depression and anxiety," says Carol Janney, lead author of the study and an MSU assistant professor of epidemiology. Despite this research, she points out, many patients in the survey were not meeting current physical activity guidelines, which recommend at least 30 minutes of exercise, five days per week. 

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The study authors say that, while some mental health providers might speak with their patients generally about exercise, few providers offer concrete guidance, such as helping their patients create an exercise schedule or set specific activity goals.

"Mental health providers such as psychiatrists and therapists may not have the necessary training to prescribe physical activity as part of their mental health practice," Janney says. In these cases, the study authors encourage mental health providers to partner with personal trainers, local YMCAs and recreation facilities, or other exercise professionals to offer more specific guidance about physical activity to their patients.

"This is a missed opportunity," says Marcia Valenstein, a senior author of the study and a professor emeritus in psychiatry at U-M. "If we can make it easier for both therapists and their patients to have easier access to physical activity services, then we are likely to help more patients reduce their depression and anxiety" (Gleason, MSU Today, 11/8).

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