Exercise: medicine for mental health

Mental health and mood disorders helped by exercise, study finds.

A new study has looked at the effects of exercise and nutrition on people suffering from a range of mental health and mood disorders.

The results suggest that physical activity can have such a profound effect that it may reduce patients’ time in acute facilities as well as their reliance on medication.

“The general attitude of medicine is that you treat the primary problem first, and exercise was never considered to be a life or death treatment option. Now that we know it’s so effective, it can become as fundamental as pharmacological intervention,” says David Tomasi, lead author of the study and inpatient psychiatry group therapist at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

The study

The research involved people undergoing treatment at University of Vermont Medical Center on an inpatient basis.

Dr. Tomasi built a gym at the facility and led hour-long structured exercise and nutrition sessions. This became a part of patients’ regular treatment.

Each session would include cardiovascular and resistance training, along with some flexibility development. These training sessions used free body exercises, stretching and strengthening exercises and muscle activation-specific movements. Patients would use equipment ranging from exercise bikes, ellipticals, rowers and fitness balls, to name just a few.

The training sessions drew on the guidelines set by current literature and followed the recommendations from the American College of Sports Medicine.

Additionally, Dr. Tomasi also held 60-minute nutrition education sessions. At these, patients would identify healthy food choices and develop plans for meal preparation. Here the focus was on the connection between gastrointestinal health and psychological well-being.

The research ran for 12 months on two inpatient psychiatry units, around 100 people.

Furthermore, the patients’ conditions ranged from Major Depressive Disorders to Schizoid Personality Disorders.


At the conclusion of the research, patients reported lower levels of anger, anxiety and depression.

In addition, they had higher self-esteem and improved moods.

Dr. Tomasi and his co-authors found an average of 95 percent of patients had these positive effects as a result of the training and nutrition sessions.

Furthermore, 63 percent reported being happy rather than neutral or sad.

Similarly, almost 92 percent of patients reported liking the way their bodies felt as a result of exercise.

“The fantastic thing about these results is that, if you’re in a psychotic state, you’re sort of limited with what you can do in terms of talk therapy or psychotherapy,” says Dr. Tomasi. “It’s hard to receive a message through talk therapy in that state, whereas with exercise, you can use your body and not rely on emotional intelligence alone.”

As the study notes in its conclusion, physical exercise may be helpful in reducing mental health disorders by “targeting anxiety, depression, anger, psychomotor agitation, and muscle tension”, as well as “addressing stressors and triggers and to develop a more balanced and integrated sense of self”.

Due to the results of this research, Dr. Tomasi hopes that more psychiatric facilities explore exercise therapy in the future.


Tomasi, D., Gates, S. and Reyns, E. (2019.) ‘Positive Patient Response to a Structured Exercise Program Delivered in Inpatient Psychiatry.’ Global Advances in Health and Medicine. First Published May 21, 2019. Research Article. https://doi.org/10.1177/2164956119848657

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