Should We Replace Mental Health Meds with Exercise?

One hour of exercise four times a week may be better than prescription drugs for mental illness. This is the finding of a recent study by the University of Vermont (UV).

Previous research has shown that exercise helps with depression, anxiety, and mental health. Lancet Psychiatry Journal published a cross-sectional study of exercise and depression in 2018. It involved 1.2 million people across 50 states who exercised 3 to 5 times a week for 45 minutes. And found that they were less likely to experience an episode of poor mental health in the past month.

The UV study goes one step further than previous studies. It suggests that doctors may want to prescribe regular exercise before psychiatric drugs. The study took place in a controlled environment. And had very high rates of positive effects in the participants.

An inpatient psychiatry facility at the UV built a gym on the premises. It invited 100 residents to take part in a study that prescribed exercise as the first form of treatment. For bipolar disorder, depression, borderline personality disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and schizophrenia. The study took place over a 12-month period.

Participants came from two units at the inpatient facility. The patient population in Unit A included various mood disorders. The patient population in Unit B included various forms of psychoses.

Patients volunteered to take part in four 60-minute exercise sessions a week. The sessions included a mix of cardiovascular, resistance, and flexibility training. After the sessions, they were asked two questions.
• “Did exercise improve your mood?”
• “Are you please with the way your body feels now?”
The results were stunning.

In Unit A, 93.2 percent of patients answered “yes” to Question 1 and 93 percent answered “yes” to Question 2. In Unit B, 96.8 percent of patients answered “yes” to Question 1 and 90.6 percent answered “yes” to Question 2.

In medicine, you treat the primary problem first,” says David Lag Tomasi, study co-author. But exercise has never been the first form of treatment in mental illness. This study may change that. At least exercise may become as respected and fundamental as a pharmacological intervention.

Tomasi points out that exercise, like prescription drugs, is a non-verbal intervention. As such, it can be more effective than talk therapy and psychotherapy.

The study involved psychiatric inpatients. But the results have implications for anyone struggling with mental health issues. And that’s a lot of us. One in five U.S. adult is living with a mental illness. Our happiness index is at an all-time low.

Summing Up:

This study breaks new ground that has implications for everybody. It allows us to think differently about mental illness and exercise. It seems that the human body is designed to move. Maybe it’s time to get moving… again.

Reference: David Tomasi, Sheri Gates, Emily Reyns. Positive Patient Response to a Structured Exercise Program Delivered in Inpatient Psychiatry. Global Advances in Health and Medicine, May 21, 2019

Photo credit: ID 41191059 © Gstockstudio1 |

Medical disclaimer: This article is intended for education and information only. It is not a substitute for a doctor’s opinion.

Via Anderson, E-RYT, is a Yoga and movement coach and teaches the Intelligent Movement Forever system of healthy movement in a weekly online class, in private sessions, and at Yoga Vallarta during the high season. This 77-year-old grandmother practices what she preaches and teaches. She is the author of “How to Move Without Pain: A Compendium of Intelligent Movement”, to be released in 2019.