Matt Nerger was 6 when he first tried sports and, like for many youngsters, it was overwhelming.
He cried for hours leading up to his first soccer game at the spacious indoor Soccer Centers complex in New Jersey.
Just thinking about being on the field with all those other kids caused him excessive anxiety, nausea, and outright fear.
But in the end, he put the scariness aside, took the field, and had a good time.
He also learned a lifelong lesson about how exercising his body is good for exercising demons.
“Team bonding and learning how to work with others was crucial in my development into adulthood,” said Nerger, who now works as a writer. “Sports helped me destroy some of the barriers that my anxiety created.”
Scientists agree that physical exercise — either solo or in a team environment — not only helps our bodies look and function better, it can effectively battle mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.
Sports sociology researchers from the University of South Australia (UniSA) and MSH Medical School Hamburg in Germany released a study they say demonstrates sports can protect people from serious mental health disorders.
The study assessed levels of anxiety and depression among 682 German recreational athletes under different conditions along with similar amounts of exercise and intensity.
Researchers also gauged factors such as indoor settings versus outdoors, as well as team sports compared to individual sports.
Athletes who met the World Health Organization’s (WHO) exercise guidelines generally experienced better mental health than those that didn’t.
The guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week for healthy adults ages 18 to 64.
“I’ve seen firsthand the incredible benefits that even the slightest amount of regimented exercise can have on anyone,” Dr. Vernon B. Williams, the director of sports neurology and pain medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, told Ask The Doctor.
“Although medications can play an important role in mental health, as well as pain and disease management, they have their limitations,” he added.
“And with a mounting crisis in prescription drug and opiate usage, we as a clinical community must look at other ways to help patients boost the quality of their lives,” Williams said.
One of the study’s authors, Katja Siefken, an adjunct lecturer in the School of Health Sciences at the University of South Australia, said it’s important to recognize that different forms of exercise affect mental health in different ways.
“Understanding the factors that can influence or alleviate depression and anxiety are essential but, until now, there’s been insufficient proof about the optimal types — or amounts — of activity needed for positive mental health,” Siefken said in a statement.
Researchers found people not exercising up to WHO guideline standards reported higher depression scores, whether they exercised indoors or outdoors, individually, or with a team.
“We have studied some of these issues in my lab,” said Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University in California.
“You get different benefits from group exercise than individual. Typically, group exercise keeps you engaged and is energizing, while individual exercise is more contemplative and stress reducing,” he said.
Authors also found the lowest scores relating to anxiety and depression occurred among indoor team athletes.
“Outdoor exercise is more energizing and more rewarding for most people as long as it is safe and involves green space,” said Plante.
The study also found that people undertaking vigorous-intensity physical activity often had higher levels of depression.
Moderation may be key.
“I would caution against a blanket statement that more (equals) better,” said Kelly Clifton Turner, director of education for national yoga chain YogaSix and an experienced registered yoga teacher.
“Some people lean toward obsessive tendencies, and thinking that they have to do more, more, more, can actually add stress — both to their physical body (and) their emotional state,” she told Ask The Doctor. “Oranges are a wonderful food to eat — they have vitamins [and] give good energy. But no doctor would recommend eating 20 oranges a day. Moderation and balance are important in all things.”
“If you can’t meet the 150 minutes per week, the question to ask is: What can you make? Something is better than nothing,” she added.
Exercise is a concept a counselor in Georgia said stretches back millennia.
“Looking at our early ancestors helps us see why exercise boosts our mental health,” Brent Sweitzer, LPC, a licensed family therapist in Georgia who helps children manage feeling through play, told Ask The Doctor.
“Before the first human settlements 10,000 years ago, human beings traveled an average of 13 miles a day. Our brains were wired to function best when we’re moving a lot,” he said.
“Exercising 30 minutes a day provides the same mood boost as taking a standard dose of Prozac, but without any side effects,” Sweitzer added.
Cutting off exercise for even a recreational athlete can also have its effects.
Arin Arpinar, a media analyst in Minneapolis, ran three marathons and played competitive soccer.
He also experienced anxiety and minor depression. When he underwent some unexpected life changes, he found himself without exercise.
“My anxiety increased significantly last year when I broke up with my ex-girlfriend and moved out of our apartment,” Arpinar told Ask The Doctor. “It was a major life change. While going through that, I was unable to play soccer competitively or run because of a hamstring injury.”
“This inability to exercise was incredibly challenging to overcome and hurt my mental health,” he added.
Months of rehab and strength training “severely improved my mental health,” he said. “I’m a huge advocate for physical exercise and its impact on mental health.”
Which isn’t to say someone can exercise their way out of anything.
“Some disorders, such as bipolar [disorder] and schizophrenia, are not going to be stopped (by) running or playing tennis,” said Plante. “Certainly, exercise can help with anxiety, depression, stress, and self-esteem issues that might then lead into something more concerning. But it isn’t going to stop major psychopathology from unfolding in at-risk people.”
About those recommendations that adults exercise 150 minutes a week? No less than a champion powerlifter and member of the AAU Strength Sports Hall of Fame said they’re not exactly the law.
“As for the WHO guidelines, they are a minimum requirement, like the RDA (recommended dietary allowance) for vitamins,” Robert Herbst, who had scoliosis as a child and began weightlifting after a doctor told him to never lift anything heavy, told Ask The Doctor.
“They are designed to prevent ill physical health. The RDA of vitamin C is 60 (milligrams). If you eat that, you won’t get scurvy. The 150 minutes of exercise will provide a basic level of health, but people can be in better shape than that,” he said.
And if not?
“Sometimes 10 minutes is all you need to clear your head or to lower your cortisol levels,” Plante said. “Even though that may not be enough for cardio health… any movement counts as exercise. Your body does not know the difference. Making the bed and taking out the garbage is the same as bending and stretching and lifting dumbbells in the gym.”