Physical activity touted as medicine for mental illness

Brompton World Championship racer, 2008. [John Spooner/Flickr]

This article is part of our special report Physical inactivity: A ticking timebomb in the EU.

SPECIAL REPORT / A new report on physical activity in Europe underlines the positive impact of exercise for the body and the mind.

The report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), published on Wednesday (18 June), points to various studies suggesting that physical activity can prevent mental illness, such as stress, anxiety and depression.

Getting citizens to exercise is a cost-effective way of reducing healthcare spending and makes workers more productive and efficient at work, says the report commissioned by the International Sport and Culture Association (ISCA).

In the European region, mental illness affects one in four people at some stage of their life, according to the World health Organisation (WHO).

It is estimated that 83 million people are currently affected by mental health problems across the region. 33.2% of women and 21.7% of men suffer from mental illnesses, according to the WHO.

Exercise can be a very effective way of addressing mental health problems, as the two are closely interlinked, said Vicky Pryce, an economist and one of the authors of the report, The Economic Cost of Physical Inactivity in Europe.

“Of course we worry about this from a human-cost perspective, but economically too figures are staggering,” Pryce said at a launch event of the report in Brussels on Wednesday (17 June).

“The economic costs of these inactivity-related physical and mental disorders in terms of for example medical expenses as well as lost output, so that people can’t work as long, work so well, as productive, they amount in our calculations to over €80 billion,” she continued.

Mairead McGuinness, an Irish MEP from the European People’s Party (EPP) who co-chairs the MEP Heart Group, called mental illness “a serious public health issue”.

“In today’s busy world, stress and anxiety levels can be high. Research clearly indicates a positive association between exercise and psychological health,” she told EURACTIV in an interview, saying mental illness is associated with suicide attempts, drug and alcohol abuse.

Move ahead with children

Mental health problems often begin in childhood. Tackling them at an early age can improve life quality and physical activity is seen as playing a crucial role to achieve this.

Tibor Navracsics, the Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, stressed the importance of ensuring that children are physically active enough.

“We know that exercise and regular physical activity are crucial for children’s early development and stimulate the working of the brain during childhood as well as in adulthood. Studies have also shown that physically active children attain better results at school,” Navracsics told EURACTIV in an interview.

“So, I would say that we need sufficient and regular exercise to make sure our not only our bodies but also our minds work in the best possible ways,” the Commissioner stated.

The World Health Organisation recommends 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week. This reduces the risk of ischaemic heart disease by approximately 30%, diabetes by 27%, and breast and colon cancer by 21–25%.

According to a Eurobarometer survey, 42% of EU citizens never exercise or play sport.

Currently, 30-70% of EU citizens are overweight while 10-30% are obese, the WHO estimates.

  • 7-13 Sept.: EU week of sport
  • Sept.: MOVE Week

Subscribe to our newsletters