Physical activity targets must change to optimise mental health

Media release
20 November 2019

Global physical activity guidelines should be extended to ensure they have the best impact on mental as well as physical health, according to a new paper from Deakin University.

Lead author Dr Megan Teychenne, a senior lecturer in Deakin's Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), said exercise could have an extremely positive impact on mental health and wellbeing, but some of these effects are likely to be missed in the current international recommendations.

"Globally there are great physical activity guidelines that show the amount of exercise needed to maintain good general health, but our research suggests that they miss aspects that are crucial for mental health," Dr Teychenne said.

"In fact, what our research shows is that physical activity for mental health is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and not all exercises are equal when it comes to improving mental health and wellbeing.

"Exercising for leisure or as part of active transport - cycling for example - has the greatest benefit for mental health. While physical activity at work has been shown in some studies to have a negative effect on mental health, and carrying out physical domestic duties appears to offer no positive effect.

"Factors like enjoyment and social interaction are likely to positively impact the relationship between physical activity and mental health. We found exercise that is self-motivated, enjoyable or personally important is associated with good mental wellbeing. While exercise that is undertaken due to guilt or pressure is associated with poor mental wellbeing, and is therefore unlikely to be sustainable.

"For physical health the activity domain doesn't matter, but for mental health our evidence suggests it matters quite a bit. Of course we don't want to deter people from doing any form of physical activity, but for optimal mental health benefits, it’s important to make this distinction."

Dr Teychenne said the recommended amount of physical activity - a minimum of 150 minutes of aerobic exercise and two sessions of muscle-strengthening exercises per week - also needed to be re-examined in light of mental health impacts.

"Our research shows that we can experience mental health benefits from exercise at even lower doses. So a key message should be that something is better than nothing when it comes to mental health," she said.

Dr Teychenne said some of these intricacies were recognised in the Australian physical activity guidelines but not in the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.

"Another issue is that the current global guidelines just single out how physical activity can help combat the symptoms of depression but do not cover off on other elements of mental health or wellbeing," she said.

"Research shows that exercise can also help those with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and psychosis, as well as general mental wellbeing. It's important we expand the terminology here so people are aware of the full range of benefits."

Dr Teychenne said there was an international committee who regularly reviewed these recommendations, and the revised WHO guidelines were expected to be delivered next year.

She said the aim of her paper - recently published in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity -  was to get mental health much more firmly on the radar in the development of the guidelines.

"We propose that global recommendations consider both the prevention of mental ill-being and the promotion of mental well-being," she said.

"In line with this, we suggest recommendations include two further points: one, do some physical activity during leisure-time or in active travel, where possible prioritising activities that are enjoyable or self-driven, and two, some physical activity is better than none for both physical and mental health.

"These international recommendations are critical in guiding researchers and policymakers in intervention and program development. They are often used as the basis for mass media campaigns to promote public health, and they're also something that should be used by GPs to promote healthy behaviours to their patients."

Currently Dr Teychenne said only a little over half of people reached the recommended 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week. While less than a quarter meet both aerobic and strengthening exercise targets.

"With mental disorders among the leading causes of disease and disability globally, it's critical we optimise these guidelines to better promote physical and mental health around the world," she said.

Dr Teychenne's tips for exercise to promote mental health and wellbeing

  • Schedule time in your day to be active for leisure or transport purposes. This might be going for a walk before the kids wake up in the morning, after dinner, or simply swapping your car ride for a bicycle ride or walk.
  • Choose a physical activity that you enjoy, that way you are more likely to stick with it and gain mental health benefits. This might include walking around the neighbourhood with friends, trying a dance class, or dusting off an old work-out DVD.
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Media release Faculty of Health, School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN)

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