'When life gets overwhelming, exercise helps me.' What the science says about exercise as a form of therapy.

Whenever Jessica Ayliffe, 33, feels like her anxiety is getting the better of her, she schedules in a workout. It's not always easy (then again, what is when juggling work commitments and two kids under five?), but she's learnt that moving her body has a direct impact on her ability to manage stress.

"Working out gives me the opportunity to stop, slow down my thoughts and clear my head," she tells Mamamia. "Anxiety can make me feel so overwhelmingly out of control at times, and it's a feeling I really hate. Exercise helps me take back a bit of control over my mind and body – something as simple as being able to choose what type of movement I do and how hard I push myself helps give me back some power."

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During a recent study, researchers from the University of South Australia found that physical activity is 1.5 times more effective than counselling or medication when it comes to managing depression. It can also significantly reduce symptoms of anxiety and psychological distress. 

But can something as simple as going for a run really make that much of a difference? According to Carly Dober, psychologist and mental health expert for the Headspace App, the answer is yes.


Working out can lift your mood.

"Regular exercise can have a profoundly positive impact on people who experience a whole host of common mental illnesses, such as anxiety, ADHD, depression, PTSD, and more," Dober tells Mamamia.

As well as improving your overall mood, sleep quality and concentration, Dober says that exercise can also help relieve stress and lower inflammation, which is often associated with poor mental health. "[It also] releases endorphins and can serve as a distraction from difficult thoughts and feelings," she adds.

Although the recent South Australian study was the most comprehensive analysis of exercise and mental health to date, Dober notes that psychologists have long known the brain and body respond very well to movement.  

"[Exercise] can be used as a protective factor, for symptom management, and mental health maintenance," she says, and Ayliffe agrees.

"I find it difficult to articulate exactly how I'm feeling when I experience high levels of anxiety," explains Ayliffe. "I also don't always know why I'm feeling the way I'm feeling, so it's important for me to take time for myself and process my own thoughts before I talk about them. Exercise allows me to do that."

Could exercise help with Australia's mental health crisis?

When it comes to managing your mental health, one of the biggest advantages exercise has over traditional talk therapy is that it's a whole lot more accessible. In fact, demand for psychologists has increased by 70 per cent since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the cost-of-living crisis continuing to exacerbate mental health issues. It's clear more of us need help, but with one in three psychologists closing their books to new patients, that help can be hard to come by.


"This means that far too many Australians are needing to wait longer or completely forgo mental health treatment, as they are unable to access it due to waitlists, [limited] financial means, or, for many people, a combination of both," Dober explains.

When you consider the fact that exercise isn't only free, but an activity you can do anytime, anywhere, it becomes a far more appealing option.

"Research tells us that something as simple as a 10-minute walk every day can lead to small benefits, but to see meaningful results, it is recommended you engage in 150 minutes of physical activity per week," says Dober. "The return on investment is well worth the time!"

For Ayliffe, who works out two to four times a week with a mix of Pilates, yoga and walking, maintaining a consistent exercise routine has had a noticeable impact on her overall mental health.

"If I neglect working out, my mood is generally lower and I also notice a depletion in my general health, with poor sleep, poor nutrition and more frequent feelings of anxiety and stress creeping up," she says. "I always feel much lighter and happier after I've exercised."


What exercise is best when it comes to improving your mental health?

If you're not a fan of HIIT workouts, forcing yourself to complete them every week won't exactly leave you feeling overjoyed. Thankfully, you don't have to force anything. When it comes to the mood-boosting benefits of exercise, any type of movement can help.

Although higher-intensity workouts seem to have the greatest mental health benefits, everything from brisk walks and yoga to Pilates and strength training can help soothe a busy mind. The key is to find something you love and stick to it.

"Recently, I've found that workouts lower in intensity have the best effect on my mental health, as I don't feel like I'm putting my body under more stress," notes Ayliffe. "Workouts like Pilates and yoga focus a lot on breathwork, which I find really beneficial in helping me calm down my nervous system. It helps release all that built-up tension and nervous energy."

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So, is it time to call it quits with your therapist?

That's a no. Although exercise can significantly improve your mental health, Dober warns it's never a good idea to limit yourself to one treatment modality. 

"We know that many strong elements of health come together to form a holistic picture," she explains. "Exercise should and can always be used with therapy, and with other things such as mindfulness, healthy social connections, good enough nutrition, and connection with nature."


Although exercise is less expensive and more easily accessible than therapy and medication, it doesn't come without barriers. You may have limited mobility or, depending on the severity of your mental health symptoms, you may not be motivated to work out. 

"For some people, exercise may replace traditional talk therapy and medication, however, each person is unique," says Dober. "It would be dangerous of me to state that everyone and anyone can forgo talk therapy and medication because, unfortunately, that's just not the case."

While exercise can improve and manage your symptoms, therapy can provide you with strategies for dealing with triggers and unwanted thought patterns, and sometimes medication is simply required. 

For that reason, it's always best to consult a GP or psychologist so they can help you devise an effective, well-rounded treatment plan. Just make sure it's one that includes regular physical activity.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health issue, please seek professional help and contact your GP. If you're based in Australia, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 for support or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. If you are in immediate danger, call 000.

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