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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Improve mental health with good food, exercise
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By James Penland

Did you know that being more physically active can improve your mental health?

The news media are full of stories about the increase in overweight and obesity in the United States. We are reminded that excess weight is a major risk factor for many health problems. These include heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis. And we repeatedly are told that eating a healthy diet and being physically active are the keys to losing weight and avoiding weight gain., which is based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2005), recommends that adults get at least 30 minutes of "moderate" physical activity most days of the week. Moderate activities include walking, housework, gardening, actively playing with children, and yoga. Children should be active for at least 60 minutes a day to avoid gaining weight. Adults trying to lose weight and maintain weight loss should be active 60 to 0 minutes a day. Everyone should spend less time watching television.

To learn more about these exercise guidelines, go to, click on "Inside the Pyramid," and then click on the person climbing the stairs for a brisk primer on exercise guidelines.

More "vigorous" activities, such as jogging and aerobics, may provide greater benefits for physical health. Most people realize that physical activity can increase their endurance, strength and flexibility. What many people don't realize is that physical activity also is important for mental health.

Depression is a mood disorder. A person may be depressed if he or she has several of the following symptoms for at least 2 weeks. Feelings of sadness, worthlessness, hopelessness, fatigue or irritability. Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions. Problems with sleep or appetite.

A depressed person may have physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders and chronic pain. People with severe depression may have thoughts of death or suicide, or actually attempt suicide. People who are depressed often have poorer physical health and are less productive at work or school. Depression also results in less self-esteem, social problems and reduced quality of life.

"The Global Burden of Disease Study," a survey of health problems and their costs in countries around the world showed that depression is the fourth-leading cause of disability worldwide.

About 10 percent of Americans suffer from depression each year. Depression costs the U.S. economy $80 billion each year in lost work productivity and treatment. Treatments include psychotherapy (talk therapy), medication and hospitalization. Unfortunately, only about one in four of those affected seek treatment.

Studies have found that several months of moderate physical activity can reduce the symptoms of depression. In fact, the benefits of activity often were similar to those obtained from taking antidepressant medications and psychotherapy. And benefits continued even when people resumed a less active lifestyle.

But consistency is important. Brief periods of vigorous physical activity may not be as beneficial as regular moderate activity. In fact, some studies have found no effect of vigorous activity on depression. Others have found an increase in depression. In addition, we don't know whether moderate activity plays a role in helping prevent depression.

Studies at the Cooper Institute in Dallas have found that regular physical activity may help reduce the symptoms of panic and anxiety disorders. Fatigue and sleep problems which are common in mental health disorders also were found to improve with more physical activity. Other studies have found that more physical activity helps people to cope better with stress. And it improves self-esteem and overall quality of life.

Scientists now are trying to find out whether increasing physical activity might improve chronic disorders such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer's disease. Initial studies show that more physical activity improves quality of life in these groups.

The Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center is collaborating in a national study to find out what makes it so hard for people to eat healthy diets and be more physically active. We also are trying to find out whether the DGA recommendations work in all the different age and ethnic groups in the country.

Another goal of this study is to find out whether following the DGA recommendations for physical activity and diet will improve symptoms of depression and other aspects of mental health.

The message is clear. Being physically active promotes a healthy weight and reduces risk of chronic physical diseases. But it is also likely that physical activity reduces depression and it may be a useful treatment for other chronic mental health problems.

Last Modified: 7/6/2006
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