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Should Exercise Be Part of Mental Health Treatment?

A beautiful senior Mexican woman stretching with weights.

A recent study published in General Hospital Psychiatry suggests that many people seeking treatment for mental health issues are interested in exercise or say it helps them. Numerous studies have documented the role of exercise in treating mental health, particularly depression. A trio of 2016 studies found that exercise could treat depression, for example.

Another study published in 2016 linked exercise to improved symptoms of dementia-related depression. Research published in 2017 linked inactivity to dementia, and a study published in 2014 found that exercise might counteract a gene for Alzheimer’s. Exercise may also help treat PTSD, a study published in 2015 found. 

Despite the reported benefits of exercise, many of the people interested are not getting the physical activity they desire. The study recommends that mental health providers consider including exercise in their treatment programs.

Physical Activity for Improved Well-Being

Researchers designed the study to assess whether people seeking treatment for mental health issues are interested or see value in physical activity. They asked 295 people who sought help at a mental health clinic about their views on exercise.

Eighty percent said exercise improved their mood and reduced their anxiety, while 85% percent expressed a desire for more exercise. Less than half reported meeting current physical activity guidelines, which currently recommend 150 minutes of physical activity per week. About half (52%) said their mental health was a barrier to exercising.

Despite the interest those surveyed had in physical activity, only 37% said their mental health providers regularly discussed exercise with them. About half said they would be interested in discussing the topic with a mental health provider, and some said it should be an ongoing topic of discussion.

Helping People in Therapy Meet Exercise Goals

Exercise improves physical and mental health, making it a powerful tool for improving quality of life and fighting mental health challenges. The study’s authors suggest that integrating physical activity into mental health treatment may improve mental health outcomes. Some therapists already incorporate physical activity into treatment. An approach called “walk and talk” therapy, for example, encourages people participating in therapy to walk outside while talking to a therapist. However, experts caution that not all mental health providers have the training and expertise to make recommendations about these programs. Partnerships with other organizations, such as the YMCA, might help bridge the gap.


  1. Janney, C. A., Brzoznowski, K. F., Richardson, C. R., Dopp, R. R., Segar, M. L., Ganoczy, D., . . . Valenstein, M. (2017). Moving towards wellness: Physical activity practices, perspectives, and preferences of users of outpatient mental health service. General Hospital Psychiatry, 49, 63-66. doi:10.1016/j.genhosppsych.2017.07.004
  2. Should exercise be what the doctor orders for depression? (2017, November 8). EurekAlert. Retrieved from https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-11/msu-seb110817.php

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  • Leave a Comment
  • becky

    November 30th, 2017 at 1:16 PM


  • Vernetta

    December 29th, 2017 at 9:04 AM

    Great article and so true. As I tell my clients movement is medicine.

  • Allana

    August 14th, 2018 at 3:39 PM

    I agree that exercise can help in mental health treatment. This is a very informative article! Thank you!

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