Large study finds clear association between fitness and mental health

Large study finds clear association between fitness and mental health

Written by Timothy Huzar on November 19, 2020 — Fact checked by Hilary Guite, FFPH, MRCGP

New research from a large study demonstrates that low cardiorespiratory fitness and muscle strength have a significant association with worse mental health.


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Researchers have reported a clear link between low physical fitness and the risk of experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, or both.

The study, which included more than 150,000 participants, found that cardiorespiratory fitness and muscle strength independently contribute to a greater risk of worse mental health.

However, the researchers saw the most significant association when they looked at cardiorespiratory fitness and muscle strength in combination.

The research, which appears in the journal BMC Medicine, may help inform clinical guidance on mental health and physical fitness.

Physical and mental health

Problems with mental health, just like physical health issues, can have a significant negative effect on a person’s life. Two of the more common mental health conditions are anxiety and depression.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 18.1% of adults in the United States have experienced an anxiety disorder in the past year. In addition, the National Institute of Mental Health note that 7.1% of U.S. adults have had a major depressive episode.

There is growing evidence that being physically active may help prevent or treat mental health conditions. However, many questions still need answering.

For example, what measures should researchers use to quantify physical activity? In what ways can it prevent mental health issues or improve a person’s mental health? And is it possible to demonstrate a causal link between physical activity and better mental health?

It is important to have detailed evidence of the relationship between physical activity and mental health, as well as the mechanisms that might underlie it. With this information, clinicians can offer more targeted guidance to people with mental health conditions.

To begin to answer some of these questions, a team of researchers analyzed an existing large dataset that allowed them to build on their understanding of the association between physical fitness and mental health.

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