The Binding Connection Between Exercise and Mental Health

The benefits of exercise extend beyond physical fitness. It can also be the key to maintaining mental health.

Recently, we’ve heard several stories about top-tier athletes stepping away from their sports or teams to preserve their mental health.

Simone Biles curtailed her participation in the Tokyo Olympics. Naomi Osaka, currently ranked number 2 by the Women’s Tennis Association, made headlines when she stepped away from a press conference and then the French Open. Will Craig left the Pittsburgh Pirates and decided to play baseball in Korea.

The past year has been stressful for everyone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 18.1% of adults in the United States have experienced an anxiety disorder in the past year. In addition, the National Institute of Mental Health notes that 7.1% of U.S. adults have had a major depressive episode.

As far as post-pandemic plans go, 58% of the respondents to the Mindbody Summer 2021 U.S. Consumer Survey say they have a renewed focus on their mental health.

A Clear Tie Between Exercise and Mental Health

Although the rise of mental health issues has recently been a major talking point in the media, most reports don’t cover steps that can be taken to improve them. The truth is that routine exercise and rehabilitative training—and being fit—can play a key role in improving mental health and mood.

One unique, long-term study of 152,978 participants between the ages of 40 and 69 from England, Wales, and Scotland reveals a very clear correlation between exercise, fitness, and mental health.

Equipment Sports Art Woman Elliptical Exercising Limited Use Column

In 2009, the study’s researchers built a baseline for subsequent results by combining fitness tests with standard clinical questionnaires relating to anxiety and depression. After tracking participants for seven years, the study found that those who were classified as having low combined cardiorespiratory fitness and muscle strength had 98% higher odds of experiencing depression and 60% higher odds of experiencing anxiety. In addition, the data found that a person can meaningfully improve their physical fitness with exercise in as little as three weeks, which has the potential to reduce a person’s risk of developing a common mental health condition by up to 32.5%.

Results from a 2019 JAMA Psychiatry study support and build on those findings.

“We saw a 26% decrease in odds for becoming depressed for each major increase in objectively measured physical activity,” says study author Karmel Choi, a clinical and research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in the Harvard Health Publishing article “More Evidence That Exercise Can Boost Mood.” Choi adds, “This increase in physical activity is what you might see on your activity tracker if you replaced 15 minutes of sitting with 15 minutes of running, or one hour of sitting with one hour of moderate activity like brisk walking.”

Not to pile on, but researchers in a Swedish study, Associations of Exercise Frequency and Cardiorespiratory Fitness with Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety, found evidence that more frequent exercise was linked to improved mental health. Respondents who reported exercising at least one to two times per week were less likely to report symptoms of depression and anxiety, even after accounting for sedentary behavior, which was measured as the amount of leisure time participants reported spending sitting still.

Boosting Mood in the Real World

If you want to get an anecdotal—and direct—perspective on the impact exercise can have on mood and mental health, listen to someone rehabbing from an injury, to how they respond to what exercise gives them.

  • Alex McKiernan broke his T11 vertebra and damaged his spinal cord when a car struck his vehicle from behind doing 60 miles per hour. Suffering what is referred to as a “very incomplete spinal cord injury,” he was paralyzed early on and is slowly recovering. Very fitness-oriented before the accident, Alex stepped on a rehab-modified elliptical machine for the first time nine months after his injury.

After completing three six-minute intervals, “I didn’t want to stop,” he says. “The motor wasn’t assisting me anymore, the body weight support wasn’t holding me up, but I was able to just go because I wanted to do it…. It’s nice to discover the things you can do, because you spend a lot of time thinking about the things you can’t do. It’s another step of independence. You really lose a lot of independence when you have an injury like this.”

  • Shauna Hicks, 52, had a life built around fitness. A college basketball player, bodybuilder, and multi-sport athlete, she suffered a stroke at 48. When she first woke up in the hospital, she was told that she wouldn’t be able to walk again.

As she rehabs, getting on the modified elliptical “makes me feel like I’m walking around the track—I love it,” Shauna enthuses. “When it’s time to stop, I ask for five more minutes. You think you won’t be able to do some of the things you used to do. But now, I’m getting back to being me…. I’m getting my old life back in a lot of ways that I never thought possible.”

  • Brandon and Tiffany Verzel’s daughter Alexis suffered a traumatic brain injury at 14 months old. It took a couple of years for her to learn how to walk with support. At age four, she began working with the modified elliptical machine with the goal of building her strength and endurance.

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“She went from us having to support her with two arms to walk anywhere to two years later, our going to the store and having her walk around by herself for 30 or 40 minutes,” Brandon says. “She now is so much more independent.”

In one recent scene filmed by the Verzels, a laughing Alexis shouts, “I’m doing it!” as she walks unassisted through their living room.

“She has been given the independence that she needs to let her body start to decide, ‘I can shift my weight now, my ankles need to do this, my arms need to do this,’” says Tiffany.

What SportsArt Brings to the Table

What all these experiences have in common is that they were made possible by SportsArt’s Intelligently Controlled Assistive Rehabilitation Elliptical (ICARE). ICARE is a motorized elliptical machine that provides body weight support. Functioning largely like a standard elliptical machine, ICARE is unique in its ability to adjust to a custom fit for a user’s unique walking pattern. Built-in sensors detect the amount of effort a user is exerting and activate the motor to assist in keeping a constant stepping rate for the duration of therapy. This integrated support and customization allow for longer, more effective, intense therapy sessions.

In terms of functionality, ICARE is modular, with options for forward or backward elliptical cycling, with or without additional bodyweight support, depending on a user’s needs and abilities. This modularity allows ICARE to be used for cardiovascular exercise and lower extremity strengthening for outpatient therapy for a variety of conditions and injuries.

“ICARE is more than rehabilitation equipment,” asserts Ruben Mejia, executive vice president, Americas, at SportsArt. “It helps people envision—and accomplish—what they can do instead of focusing on what they can’t do. It can function as, and looks like, a regular elliptical machine, welcoming those who don’t want others to know they need assistance. ICARE represents everything SportsArt stands for: inspiration, inclusivity, and performance for our shared world.

“At SportsArt, we believe that serving others is more rewarding than serving ourselves,” he continues. “ICARE is a direct extension of that underlying value, allowing us to provide a wider population with access to rehabilitation and fitness solutions.”

To learn more about ICARE and the entire SportsArt line of equipment, visit their website.

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Jon Feld

Jon Feld is a contributor to