Do we need physical activity guidelines for mental health: What does the evidence tell us?

Poor mental health and well-being is a major cause of disease burden globally, with depression considered a leading contributor (Vigo, Thornicroft, & Atun, 2016). Physical activity is well recognised as a key risk factor for the prevention and management of mental ill-being, including, but not limited to, mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Since the late 1970’s, physical activity for health guidelines have been developed and refined over several decades by leading international experts in the field (Oja & Titze, 2011). Broadly, the purpose of physical activity guidelines is to provide recommendations to improve overall health and well-being. Originally, the physical activity guidelines were proposed for preventing cardiovascular disease-related mortality, and, subsequently, were developed to encompass other prevalent chronic conditions (e.g. cancer, diabetes) (U.S Department of Health and Human Services, 2018). Currently, the global recommendations are based on reducing the risk of common chronic/non-communicable diseases (NCD’s), relating specifically to cardiorespiratory health, metabolic health, musculoskeletal health, cancer, functional health and depression (World Health Organisation, 2010).

Physical activity recommendations for public health describe the type (e.g. aerobic, strength) and dose (e.g. duration, frequency, intensity and/or volume) of physical activity required by adults to reduce the likelihood of developing NCD’s. However, given that evidence has shown that the relationship between physical activity and mental health/ill-health is likely to, in part, be influenced by contextual factors across the lifespan (e.g. domain of physical activity, autonomous participation), there may be need to extend the focus/scope of existing physical activity guidelines to ensure they effectively address mental health (Richards, Doherty, & Foster, 2015Teychenne, Ball, & Salmon, 2010White et al., 2017). This paper examines the current global physical activity recommendations for adults (World Health Organisation, 2010) and its relation to mental health, with a key focus on depression.

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