New research shows the importance of physical activity to suffers of Anxiety & Depression. The study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine and conducted by researchers at the University of South Australia, found physical activity beneficial in improving symptoms of depression, anxiety, and distress and that physical activity can be up to 1.5 times more effective than other treatments like counselling and medications. It also highlighted how quickly physical activity interventions can provide benefits. On the whole, participants showed the greatest improvements in just 12 weeks.
Lead researcher, Dr Ben Singh, stresses the urgency for physical activity to be prioritised to better manage the growing number of mental conditions. The study pointed out that lifestyle interventions like physical activity are only considered 'complimentary treatment methods' for mood disorders like anxiety and depression. However, research like this indicates that physical activity should be a part of lifestyle treatment and a first line of treatment.
The issue of mental health has become increasingly prevalent in the Western world, underscoring a growing societal challenge. While advancements in technology, medicine, and general living standards have propelled many Western nations forward, there's been a parallel rise in mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 300 million individuals suffer from depression, and that number is higher if you include all mood disorders. Often at times depression and anxiety disorders are comorbidities, meaning people suffer from both. In Australia, it’s estimated that one in five people between the ages of 16 and 85 have experienced a mental disorder in the past year.
The WHO also states that depression is the highest contributor to global disability, placing a large burden on society, a burden for communities, healthcare systems, families, and individuals. Poor mental health costs the global economy $2.5 trillion each year, and that number is anticipated to reach $6 trillion by 2030.
It is a multifaceted problem with a lot of reasons behind these statistics. The COVID-19 pandemic and our world becoming increasingly digital, has led people to feel isolated and social connections have suffered. A Stanford University study revealed that 40% of sedentary people develop mental health complications making early exercise critical for those suffering chronic illness or post-surgery to ensure mental health challenges do not develop.
It is widely accepted that physical activity is beneficial for both physical health and mental health and well-being. Type, duration, frequency, all have an effect when it comes to how much benefit is gained. Though in all honesty, the most effective form of exercise for someone is something that they are able to make a routine out of and do consistently.
Water cycling is an excellent form of exercise that incorporates both cardio and strength training for all levels of fitness. In the study, there was a correlation between intensity and benefit received. Higher intensity exercise was associated with greater improvements in depression and anxiety.
Longer durations had smaller effects when compared to short and mid-duration bursts. The study suggests that individuals aim to do 30-60 minutes per session. Also,150 minutes per week led to the most benefit and quite quickly, with participants experiencing strong results at only 12 weeks.
There are clear physiological benefits to aquatic fitness over land-based workouts, but some research highlights that it may also have specific psychological health advantages. Aquatic fitness is an excellent way to achieve cardio and strength training, plus it is considered a blue space in most settings, which is also tied to positive mental health outcomes.
A systematic review and meta-analysis analyzed 18 intervention studies that observed the effect of aquatic exercise on mood and anxiety symptoms in participants. Symptoms significantly improved with aquatic fitness interventions, and researchers noted that light aquatic exercises may be most beneficial.
A study that measured the benefits of a 12-week aquatic exercise program on health parameters in elderly individuals with depression, compared the effects on 16 individuals diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD) to 14 nondepressed individuals. At the end of 12 weeks, mental health, functional autonomy, and oxidative stress all significantly improved in the depression group.
A common underlying issue is that depressed people often don’t love the idea of working out. Exercising in water can seem less like exercising and more like having fun. The combination of movement, breathing, and the water environment can be considered a holistic approach to healing. Each of these elements contributes to why aquatic fitness can be an excellent mental health treatment method.
EASE OF MOVEMENT
In many cases, depression is also coupled with physical pain. According to the Mayo Clinic, pain can cause depression and depression can cause pain. It’s well-known that aquatic fitness is an excellent source of physical activity for those with chronic and acute pain since the water provides resistance while lessening gravity’s toll on painful joints and muscles.
When movement is easier and more enjoyable, people have fewer barriers to receiving the benefits. Movement stimulates the release of endorphins, improves cardiovascular health, and increases overall strength and flexibility. Physical achievements can lead to improved self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment.
Furthermore, mastering new skills or routines in the water can boost confidence. As you notice improvements in your stamina, strength, and technique, this can translate into a more positive self-view and reduced feelings of helplessness, often associated with depression.
When in water, breathing is different. Swimming and aquatic fitness rely a lot on a breathing technique that involves deep, controlled breathing. This kind of breathwork eases the body into a meditative state, reducing stress levels, regulating heart rate, and improving oxygen flow to the brain.
A CALM BLUE SPACE
As discussed, the therapeutic properties of water can have a direct impact on our mental and emotional well-being. Immersion in water can be grounding, helping individuals feel more connected and present.
In addition to this, it’s also considered a blue space. Blue spaces are less about the color and more about the presence of a body of water. We’ll discuss more on this later, but there is blossoming research into the effectiveness of blue spaces on mental well-being.
Nature-based interventions (NBI) have been deemed an important facet of mental health research.
In recent years, there has been a significant interest in green spaces for public health as a metric for public health and city planning. In a 2021 umbrella review, researchers found that exposure to greenspaces was measured using a mix of objective and subjective criteria. Observations showed positive relationships between greenspaces and factors such as overall and stroke-specific death rates, cardiovascular disease incidents, cardiometabolic elements, mental well-being, higher birth weights, physical activity levels, sleep quality, and reduced urban crime.
As many are beginning to discover, another type of space may be equally as important for health–blue spaces. Blue spaces refer to visible bodies of water such as lakes, rivers, seas, and oceans.
The proximity to and interaction with these natural water bodies has been linked to various positive health outcomes, both physical and mental. Physically, areas around blue spaces often encourage recreational activities like swimming, boating, or walking along the shore, promoting physical exercise and cardiovascular health. Mentally, the presence of water can induce feelings of calmness and reduce stress levels, possibly due to the biophilic connection humans inherently have with nature.
We know that water has a psychologically restorative effect, and scientists have taken an interest in this as it relates to health outcomes. BlueHealth is a research group that focuses on just that and translating this information into helpful resources and policy change.
In his book Blue Mind, marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols discusses the promising research regarding the impact of blue spaces on health and well-being.
In a review and meta-analysis, authors identified the mechanisms at play for why blue spaces positively impact health. Those factors identified were physical activity, restoration, social interaction and environmental factors.
The research is promising so far that public health initiatives are working to include urban blue spaces. Pools are an excellent form of urban Blue Space.
HIGH INTENSITY BUT ALSO SCALABLE TO PHYSICAL SITUATION
Water Cycling is high intensity but low impact, making it a perfect choice as a high intensity exercise for the management of anxiety and depression. As you pedal faster, the pump creates more water resistance, gradually increasing your workout’s intensity. Due to water's level of natural resistance being dictated by how hard you pedal, workouts are scaled to your fitness levels. So, regardless of age or physical limitation, it is an ideal and safe option for anyone that enables mental and physical growth.
DURATION & FREQUENCY PREFERRED
The classes last 45 minutes, which falls within the 30-60 minute recommendation. To reach the weekly total of 150 minutes, it’s recommended to attend 3-4 classes each week.
THE SOCIAL ASPECT
Aquatic fitness often involves classes, which is great for social benefits. Social connectedness is deemed an important determinant of mental health.
Water fitness classes often take place in groups. For individuals with anxiety and depression, the social aspect of these classes can be incredibly beneficial. It’s an opportunity to connect with others, share experiences, and foster a sense of community.
FITNESS AT ANY AGE
Water fitness stands as a universally accessible and holistic approach to addressing mental health conditions, catering to individuals across all age groups. For the young, aquatic exercises can serve as an engaging, fun, and low-impact introduction to physical activity, promoting emotional resilience and stress relief in an increasingly demanding world.
As adolescents grapple with hormonal changes and societal pressures, water fitness offers a therapeutic escape, allowing them to build self-esteem, enhance body image, and foster positive coping mechanisms.
For adults, especially those navigating the pressures of work, relationships, and societal expectations, the buoyancy of water not only alleviates physical strain but also provides an environment conducive to mindfulness and meditation, countering anxiety and depressive tendencies.
Senior citizens, often facing mobility issues and the weight of isolation, find solace in water fitness. It not only offers them a safe space to maintain physical agility but also fosters social connections, battling feelings of loneliness. Regardless of age, water fitness emerges as a versatile, therapeutic, and rejuvenating avenue to nurture mental well-being.
Firstly, those with diagnosed depression should never stop taking their medications unless this has been cleared by a doctor.
Though the research on the benefits of exercise for depression is extensive, this will vary by person. Experts suggest that exercise to be prescribed as an adjunct treatment method at a minimum, and recommend that it isprescribed as a first line of treatment.
EXERCISE HAS POSITIVE SIDE EFFECTS NOT NEGATIVE
We discussed how exercise benefits mental health compared to medications, but let’s not forget the main benefits of exercise like improved cardiovascular health, strength, balance, confidence, and the list goes on.
Physical activity is a whole package of benefits that work together in a positive way. To compare it to nutrition, you can buy specific supplements to try and receive a particular benefit, but individual foods also come as a food matrix. Many people eat Greek yogurt due to its high protein content, but it’s also chock full of vitamins, minerals and healthy bacteria for your gut.
Medications are great at treating a specific ailment or condition, but you rarely get added indirect benefits like you do with exercise.
Another major advantage exercise has over pharmaceuticals is that there are fewer negative side effects and risks. Sure, exercising runs the risk of injury, especially for beginners, but for the most part, there are a few negative aspects of incorporating physical activity into a daily routine. On the flip side, antidepressants can come with unpleasant side effects like nausea, weight gain, fatigue, insomnia, constipation, dry mouth, dizziness, agitation, and reduced sex drive.
According to scientific research, consistently averaging 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous physical activity in 30-60 minute sessions can significantly assist sufferers of anxiety and depression.
Water fitness is more than just physical exercise; it’s a healing journey that encompasses the mind, body, and soul. For those grappling with anxiety and depression, the water's gentle embrace offers solace, strength, and a path to rejuvenation. This combination of improved physical and mental health makes water fitness an incredible tool for holistic well-being.