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Power of exercise in good mental health: UC PhD research

Marcus Butler

9 October 2015: Most Australians are aware of the need for daily exercise, but a University of Canberra researcher has found getting active can help in-patients with mental health issues in their recovery.

PhD graduate Rob Stanton discovered through analysis of the types of exercise people were undertaking that an affect-regulated approach to exercise improved mood, wellbeing and helped alleviate symptoms that patients were experiencing.

Affect-regulated exercise allows the person doing the exercise to choose how long and how hard they exercise, with the aim of doing what makes them feel good.

Dr Stanton, an exercise physiologist, said his research found affect-regulated exercise benefitted patients with mental health disorders, with the most benefit to those with depressive or bipolar disorders.

"There is clearly a role for exercise in improving physical and mental health, but it doesn't appear to be well utilised as a treatment option in a clinical setting," he said.

"It's reasonably easy to undertake, cost effective and can improve outcomes for people in care."

Dr Stanton's studies also examined the role of nurses in prescribing, encouraging and facilitating exercise programs for people in their care.

He found that while nurses provide exercise advice which is in line with evidence-based research, less than one quarter do so as part of routine care.

"Even more concerning was the finding that, although nurses believe exercise is beneficial for people with mental illness, almost 20 percent never prescribe it," Dr Stanton said.

His work uncovered that nurses encounter systemic and personal barriers to prescribing exercise, with some unsure if it is their place to encourage activity as a treatment, in addition to other medical interventions.

"We looked into a variety of different exercise programs of varied intensity and found a wide range of recommendations being put into practice. We still find the best exercise to prescribe is the one which the patient is most likely to continue once they disengage with the clinician," he said.

"I'm hopeful that my research will help to inform clinical practice and we will begin to see more care providers factoring an exercise regime into their treatment schedule," Dr Stanton said.