According to a controlled study, a web-based exercise intervention results in improvements in mental health within 3 months

Participants in a web-based physical activity intervention saw improvements in their depression, anxiety and stress levels, according to the results published in the journal Mental health and physical activity. Interestingly, these mental health benefits appear to have occurred without notable improvements in physical activity.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that physical activity can improve mental health, many adults do not meet current physical activity recommendations — the World Health Organization recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week. There is evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has further reduced exercise levels among the general public.

Technology-based physical activity interventions have been developed to encourage people to increase their physical activity. These interventions help people increase their activity levels using online methods such as smartphone apps, activity trackers, and social networks. While these interventions show promise, it is unclear whether they provide mental health benefits.

“Web-based interventions have the potential to reach large population groups in a cost-effective manner,” explained the study author Cornel Vandelanotte (@CorneelVDL), Research Professor and Future Fellow at Central Queensland University in Australia. “We know they can improve physical activity outcomes, but much less is known about how they can positively impact mental health outcomes. The association between physical activity and improved mental health outcomes is well established, as such web-based physical activity interventions should theoretically also improve mental health outcomes.”

For their study, Vandelanotte and colleagues recruited a sample of 501 Australian residents who were currently inactive (that is, doing less than 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week). At baseline, participants completed sociodemographic measurements and measurements of depression, anxiety, stress, and health-related quality of life. Participants were then randomly assigned to either a control group or a web-based physical activity intervention group.

The intervention group received access to an action planning tool and eight physical activity sessions conducted over a three-month period. Questionnaire responses and IF-THEN algorithms were used to offer participants personally tailored content and advice. The sessions explored concepts such as self-efficacy, intentions and motivation. They also employed the following behavior change techniques: feedback, direction, goal setting, habit formation, self-monitoring, action planning, and problem solving. At 3 months and 9 months after baseline, participants undertook psychological assessments again.

The results showed that participants who received the exercise intervention reported lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress and a higher psychological quality of life compared to baseline at all timepoints. In addition, compared to the control group, they reported lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress at 3 months and lower anxiety at 9 months.

The researchers note that a previous study found that this web-based exercise intervention improved self-reported physical activity but not physical activity measured via an accelerometer. This is interesting because participants nonetheless experienced significant improvements in mental health.

The results show that “improvements in mental health can be achieved through web-based physical activity interventions even when physical activity does not improve (we did not find significantly improved physical activity using objective measures), but participants believe that their physical activity improves.” improved (we found significant improvements in self-reported activity levels),” Vandelanotte told PsyPost.

The study authors say these results are consistent with a psychological explanation for the mental benefits of exercise. It appears that people can experience positive psychological outcomes with physical activity interventions when they believe they have become more active, even when they have not actually increased their activity. For example, an intervention can promote feelings of accomplishment and improvements in self-esteem and body image whether or not a person has increased physical activity.

“What people think happened (they think they’re more active) is more important than what actually happened (there was no actual increase in physical activity) in terms of mental health improvements,” Vandelanotte said .

While the results suggest that internet-based physical activity interventions are effective for improving mental health, the literature to date has been mixed. Additional studies are needed to confirm the results. Furthermore, despite a large and well-informed sample, most study participants reported good mental health at baseline, which may have limited the detection of mental health improvements due to ceiling effects. It is possible that populations with poorer mental health—such as clinical samples—would have experienced greater mental health impacts from the intervention.

“This is just one study, the results need to be confirmed in other studies,” said Vandelanotte. “The results do not apply to populations with clinical mental health problems because participants in this study already had generally good mental health prior to the study (and the study continued to improve mental health outcomes, but not by much, because of the high baseline ).”

The study, “Effects of a web-based, personally tailored physical activity intervention on depression, anxiety, stress, and quality of life: secondary results of a randomized controlled trial‘, was authored by Corneel Vandelanotte, Mitch J. Duncan, Ronald C. Plotnikoff, Amanda Rebar, Stephanie Alley, Stephanie Schoeppe, Quyen To, W. Kerry Mummery, and Camille E. Short.

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