Friday, June 15

Activity associated with restful sleep Activity associated with ability to respond to stress

Benefits (anxiety and depression) similar to those for other treatments

Activity associated with positive self-esteem

For some time now, it has been common knowledge that exercise is good for one’s physical health. It has only been in recent years, however, that it has become commonplace to read in magazines and health newsletters that exercise can also be of value in promoting sound mental health. Although this optimistic appraisal has attracted a great deal of attention, the scientific community has been much more cautious in offering such a blanket endorsement. Consider the tentative conclusions from the Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health (PCPFS Research Digest, 1996) that “physical activity appears to relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety and improve mood” and that “regular physical activity may reduce the risk of developing depression, although further research is needed on this topic.”

The use of carefully chosen words, such as “appears to” and “may” illustrate the caution that people in the scientific community have when it comes to claiming mental health benefits derived from exercise. Part of the problem in interpreting the scientific literature is that there are over 100 scientific studies dealing with exercise and depression or exercise and anxiety and not all of these studies show statistically significant benefits with exercise training. The paucity of clinical trial studies and the fact that a “mixed bag” of significant and nonsignificant findings exists makes it difficult for scientists to give a strong endorsement for the positive influence of exercise on mental health. There is no doubt that the mental health area needs more clinical trial studies. This would be particularly useful in determining if exercise “causes” improvements in variables associated with sound mental health. However, until these clinical trial studies materialize, there is still much that can be done to strengthen statements made about exercise and mental health.

What evidence would prompt some scientists to “stick their necks out” in favor of more definitive statements? One reason for greater optimism is the recent appearance of quantitative reviews (i.e., meta-analyses) of the literature on a number of mental health topics. These reviews differ in several ways from the traditional narrative reviews. A meta-analysis allows for a summary of results across studies. By including all published and unpublished studies and combining their results, statistical power is increased. Another advantage of using this type of review process is that a clearly defined sequence of steps is followed and included in the final report so that anyone can replicate the studies. Two additional advantages that meta-analysis has over other types of reviews include: (a) the use of a quantification technique that gives an objective estimate of the magnitude of the exercise treatment effect; and (b) its ability to examine potential moderating variables to determine if they influence exercise-mental health relationships. Given these advantages, this paper will focus primarily on results derived from large-scale meta-analytic reviews.

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