Objective: The case for exercise and health has primarily been made on its impact on diseases such coronary heart disease, obesity and diabetes. However, there is a very high cost attributed to mental disorders and illness and in the last 15 years there has been increasing research into the role of exercise a) in the treatment of mental health, and b) in improving mental well-being in the general population. There are now several hundred studies and over 30 narrative or meta-analytic reviews of research in this field. These have summarised the potential for exercise as a therapy for clinical or subclinical depression or anxiety, and the use of physical activity as a means of upgrading life quality through enhanced self-esteem, improved mood states, reduced state and trait anxiety, resilience to stress, or improved sleep.
The purpose of this paper is to a) provide an updated view of this literature within the context of public health promotion and b) investigate evidence for physical activity and dietary interactions affecting mental well-being.
Conclusions: Sufficient evidence now exists for the effectiveness of exercise in the treatment of clinical depression. Additionally, exercise has a moderate reducing effect on state and trait anxiety and can improve physical self-perceptions and in some cases global self-esteem. Also there is now good evidence that aerobic and resistance exercise enhances mood states, and weaker evidence that exercise can improve cognitive function (primarily assessed by reaction time) in older adults. Conversely, there is little evidence to suggest that exercise addiction is identifiable in no more than a very small percentage of exercisers. Together, this body of research suggests that moderate regular exercise should be considered as a viable means of treating depression and anxiety and improving mental well-being in the general public.