Mental health has become very topical in recent times and it is no surprise. Allied with the huge increase in obesity levels, a study in 2006 (Simon et al) reported that if one is obese, they are 25% more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression. As such, our depression and anxiety rates are growing arm in arm with our obesity levels at about 0.5% per annum (Kessler et al., 2005) and currently lie at about 20% of the population.

So what is the link between exercise and depression?

Basically, there are a few mechanisms for this effect.

Can you recognise how you feel after you do a good workout working up a strong sweat? Tired? Yes but something else is also happening.

When you exercise, your brain releases a chemical called seratonin – a good mood juice, that seeps through your blood stream and into all your working muscles, helping them to relax. Some may relate to this by how they feel after a good session of swimming when they might feel very relaxed. In fact swimming is one of the better exercises for seratonin release as every muscle in the body is worked during a swim session.

With high intensity exercise, there is also a release of dopamine – another good mood juice that is released when one feels they have overcome a physical or mental challenge.

Exercise also regulates the working of the thyroid gland; The thyroid gland controls metabolic rate and if it is not working properly, can cause you to experience various symptoms. If it is under-active, you will feel sluggish and lethargic, may put on weight, and feel depressed.

In a recent meta-analysis, it was found that 33 studies have shown that exercise can have positive affect on mood & alleviate depression (Biddle, 2009). The study confirmed that Exercise

  • Improves psychological/emotional health.
  • Reduces/alleviates depression, stress and anxiety.
  • Reduces negative mood and enhances positive mood.
  • Enhances self-esteem, confidence and sleep.
  • Improves quality of life & social relationships.
  • Increases serotonin levels in the brain.
  • Regulates thyroid gland.

Both resistance training (strength training) and aerobic training have been shown to equally reduce levels of depression. However, studies suggest that high intensity exercise conducted 3-5 times per week is best (Dunn et al 2005 & Singh et al 2005).

In fact a study by Craft in 2005 showed that exercising moderately 5 times per week increased levels of coping skills significantly among participants. This would reduce the impact of stress and or anxiety in the lives of those struggling with such issues.

Additionally, those who are overweight and under-exercised may develop various psychological issues from feeling uncomfortable with their body shapes. Accordingly, significant numbers of people report to psychologists over mental health issues such as social physique anxiety, eating disorders, exercise obsession (OCD) and body dis-morphic disorder.


We were not born to sit on a sofa and mope about our perceived hardships. Exercise is the antidote to stress and anxiety but the pharmacological firms don’t want us to know this. Stress and anxiety for them equals money. In fact, a mental health study conducted in the USA in 2008 showed that 42% of doctors recognised exercise to be a significant treatment to depression yet the same study showed that only 5% of doctors actually used it.

Exercise however, won’t fix all mental health issues as some problems may be caused by a traumatic event or experience. This can only be fixed by talking about it. There is an obvious problem with our youth as suicide rates are growing exponentially so if anybody is in trouble or is struggling, there are people there to help. It could be a friend, an uncle or aunt or anybody that you feel comfortable to go to. A problem shared is a problem halved. Better still, talk to a professional.


In a recent newspaper article, Dr Ciaran MacLoughlin suggested that it has reached epidemic proportions. Can the doctors and mental health specialists all be wrong when they voice their expertise on the matter?

We have seen huge issues for our young people with almost daily reports of suicide and missing persons in the news. The governments cut to provision of guidance counselors in schools is having serious ramifications as our young people struggle through daily pressures – often to meet their huge life expectations garnered through peer pressure and projections of peer perfection in social media. Being just a “normal” kid is never enough any more as adolescents really struggle to find their way through their “unsure of themselves” teenage years. The services are not there in the volume they are needed and our youth are paying the price.

Somebody needs to do something

Niall Breslin (aka Bressie) recently addressed the Oireachtas on this very matter. Promises were made with the impending election but we will continue with the status quo as families watch their loved ones in depression and despair. The politicians have the power. Lets see if they react in an appropriate fashion.

                                                                        Open Your Mind

Keith Begley is an accredited sport psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.

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