Much research has shown that exercise and staying physically active in general can improve mood and help counter depression. A study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings in August 2016 provided some interesting evidence for this by examining what happens when active people are denied their customary exercise boost.
Researchers from the University of Mississippi recruited 39 young adults, ages 18 to 35, all of whom regularly exercised moderately or vigorously for at least 150 minutes a week before the start of the study. Two-thirds of them were told to stop exercising for a week and to limit walking (the other third, the control group, continued their normal exercise routine). Before and after the intervention, the participants underwent psychological evaluation. Even after just seven days, the suddenly sedentary group experienced large adverse effects on mood and depression. Then, after they resumed physical activity for a week, they regained their normal emotional state.
Those results are hardly surprising. Exercise can help improve mood or at least maintain psychological equilibrium in many ways—by reducing stress and anxiety, improving sleep, providing a sense of self-efficacy, and enhancing social support (if exercise is done in a group). Take that away, as in this study, and active people suffer.
One take-home message, according to the researchers, is that athletes and exercisers who sustain an injury that prevents them from working out should be aware of these “maladaptive effects” of becoming sedentary and try to counter them by, for instance, finding another form of physical activity.
More broadly, as the accompanying editorial put it, “Physical activity and reduction of sedentary behavior have a synergistic effect on improving both physical and psychosocial health… If the benefits of exercise could be distilled into one medication and bottled, it likely would be the best selling and most prescribed medication in history.”