Benefits of exercise for mental health

By Dale Johnson Posted: April 8, 2017 7:00 a.m.

Julia Mason (left) and Daniel LeBouthillier are looking into the linkages between exercise and mental health.
Julia Mason (left) and Daniel LeBouthillier are looking into the linkages between exercise and mental health. Photo: U of R Photography

It’s long been recognized that physical exercise is also beneficial for a person’s mental well-being – and now two researchers at the U of R are looking into some of the specific benefits that exercise may have on mental health.

“Regular exercise has tremendous benefits for both our physical and mental health. However, despite being aware of these benefits, our population is largely inactive. We need effective exercise strategies for improving mental well-being that people can and will actually do on their own,” explains Julia Mason, a second-year master’s student in clinical psychology.

“Exercise has positive benefits in terms of dealing with daily stresses, but I wanted to see whether these could be applied to individuals with more severe levels of anxiety as well,” says Daniel LeBouthillier, a third-year clinical psychology PhD student.

“Access to adequate mental health care is very challenging for many people. By studying other ways to improve mental health, we will hopefully be able to offer options, such as exercise, that will be helpful as a complement to or as a stopgap for front-line treatments for anxiety,” he says.

For LeBouthillier’s study, participants exercised three times a week for four weeks with a personal trainer. They did either aerobic exercise on stationary bikes or resistance training on weight machines.

“The good news is that both types of exercise were effective in their own way. Resistance training was more effective in targeting specific symptoms of anxiety-related disorders, while aerobic exercise was better at reducing general mental anguish,” LeBouthillier explains.

Mason is early in her research project looking into how the level of intensity of exercise can affect mental health. Research already shows that brief and intense exercise may be as beneficial as longer, more moderate exercise when it comes to physical health. She wants to find out if it’s a similar situation when it comes to mental health.

“If so, it may mean that a person’s mental health could benefit through briefer, more intense exercise, if they don’t have time to do moderate exercise for longer periods of time,” says Mason, who will begin her PhD studies at the U of R this fall.

“In a related project, we are trying to determine what might prevent people with anxiety from exercising, as well as any strategies that they believe may help them exercise more frequently,” she adds.

Both of them came to the University of Regina to study under Dr. Gordon Asmundson, a professor of psychology. LeBouthillier is from New Brunswick and Mason is from Toronto.

“These and other studies are consistently showing a benefit of exercise, in various forms, for mental health problems such as anxiety and depressive disorders. The findings are particularly relevant given that, unlike in-person psychotherapy, exercise is a treatment option that is accessible to almost anyone, anywhere,” says Asmundson.

Mason is a certified personal trainer and has seen the positive impacts regular physical acitivity can have on mental health.

“Pursuing graduate studies under the supervision of Dr. Asmundson is an exciting opportunity to utilize my background in exercise science to contribute to psychological research in a practical and meaningful way,” she says. 

Mason is still welcoming new participants, so if you are interested please contact her at mindbodytrial@gmail.com.

LeBouthillier encourages people who struggle with anxiety to reach out for support, through family, friends and medical professionals.

“For those who want to try exercising to improve their mental health, I suggest starting with small, easily-achievable goals and working up to an exercise program that they can stick to safely, regularly and consistently,” he adds.

LeBouthillier says although the early results are very promising, more research is needed to look at the use of exercise to address mental disorders.

“We need to learn more about why exercise is helpful and what other factors, like physical fitness, are important to consider so that people who exercise for their mental health will have the best possible outcome,” he says.