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Unlocking the Mind-Body Connection: The Benefits of an Exercise Prescription for Anxiety and Depression

New research is confirming what we have known: physical activity significantly improves symptoms of depression, anxiety and distress. Hippocrates, who is the father of medicine in the 5th century understood this and said "if you are in a bad mood, go for a walk. If you are still in a bad mood, go for another walk." The Hippocratic Oath is what doctors in training swear to uphold. Hippocrates taught his medical students that illness is derived from three sources - diet, lifestyle and the environment. It is interesting that modern medicine often solves the issue with something that is far more profitable: prescription medicine and surgery.

According to a February 2023 systematic review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, exercise was 150% more effective than pharmaceuticals or Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Exercise was shown to reduce depression symptoms by 42-60% compared to talk therapy and medication that was shown to reduce depression by 22-37%. It was noted that even small amounts of physical activity and any kind of exercise was beneficial but especially high intensity exercise like HIIT or Boot Camp of shorter durations and even 20 - 40 minutes of walking for older individuals. The individuals that gained the largest benefits were those with depression, HIV and kidney disease as well as pregnant and postpartum women and healthy individuals.

If you are anything like me, you like to know WHY you should do something. This may be the nudge you need. You know that you feel better with exercise, but getting started or having a regular routine might have been lost in the shuffle of working, taking care of kids, etc. Knowing that exercise decreases the risk of depression and improves mental capacity personally motivates me to do more physical activity. It is also important to know that any type of physical activity is beneficial. If you cringe at the sound of the word "exercise", know you are not alone and that you can move your body any way. According to Ben Singh, M.D., "all movement is good movement" which sounds a lot like "motion is lotion", one of our favorite quotes.

Some of the less common known benefits of exercise include:

  • improves resilience, the ability to successfully adapt to difficult or challenging life experiences

  • reduces the physiological effects of anxiety and stress

  • reduces the perception of pain through increased endorphins (natural pain killers)

  • increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF; a key molecule involved in plastic changes related to learning and memory

  • reduces the risk of cancers

  • lowers the risk of hospitalizations

Jennifer Margulis, PhD, who is a renown journalist and author of Your Baby Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions For a Happier, Healthier Family agrees. She is a mother of four children and said, "physical exercise should the first choice for mental health treatment" and combined with medication and counseling, in some cases. Despite the clear evidence of exercise improving mental health, it unfortunately has NOT been widely adopted as a first-line treatment. The good news is that physical therapists are movement experts and we are passionate about helping you move better, without pain and dysfunction. If you are interested in moving better but have hip pain, back pain, pelvic pain, knee pain or any other ailment that keeps you from physical activity, contact us at (330)528-0034 to receive a customized evaluation with one of our core physical therapists. You will receive hand-on help for stiffness and dysfunction as well as a customized exercise prescription that addresses your specific mobility and goals. Your brain and body will thank you!


Singh B, Olds T, Curtis R, et al. Effectiveness of physical activity interventions for improving depression, anxiety and distress: an overview of systematic reviews. British Journal of Sports Medicine. Published Online First: 16 February 2023. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2022-106195.

Disclaimer: Please note this information does not replace individual medical advice nor does it imply discontinuing prescription medication or counseling as exercise can be complementary to other therapies.

written by Janine Laughlin, PT - April 2023


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