A person running on a treadmill in a gym.

Debunking a Myth About Who Benefits From Exercise

Exercise is known to help those with depression, but some doctors have been hesitant to prescribe it. A new study could change that pattern.


Suicide is the ninth leading cause of death in Canada, with nearly a dozen Canadians dying from suicide every day. Getting help and finding effective treatment options can be overwhelming — but according to new research from the University of Ottawa, exercise may play a bigger role in decreasing suicide attempts than previously thought.

The study was led by psychiatry resident Dr. Nicholas Fabiano and medical student Arnav Gupta, and published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

Researchers have long known that exercise can help those dealing with depression, but its link to suicidal behaviours and ideation is less certain. Many medical professionals believe that patients suffering from mental or physical illnesses have difficulty sticking with exercise regimes, which makes them less likely to prescribe it as a treatment option. Yet without effective treatment, some mental and physical illnesses can eventually lead to suicidal behaviours.

“This misconception has led to primary care providers under-prescribing exercise, resulting in further deterioration of patients’ mental and physical health,” Fabiano explained in a press release.

Along with an international team of colleagues, Fabiano and Gupta were interested in exploring this long-held belief about exercise and mental health and shedding light on how exercise affects suicidal patients in particular.

To do this, the researchers reviewed 17 different studies including more than 1,000 participants suffering from a mental or physical illness. The studies investigated the role of exercise in suicidal behaviours and ideation by dividing participants into either an exercise group or a control group, and monitoring their progress.

The researchers found that exercise had little effect on suicidal ideation — that is, thoughts or preoccupations with death and suicide. Yet participants in the exercise groups experienced significantly fewer suicide attempts than those in the control groups following the studies.

Importantly, this work also showed that patients suffering from mental and physical illnesses can indeed adhere to prescribed exercise regimes. These findings could help medical professionals feel more confident in prescribing exercise for patients at risk of attempting suicide.

“The findings of this study ‘debunk’ this belief [about adherence to exercise regimes] as exercise was well tolerated in those with mental or physical illness,” Fabiano said.

“Therefore, providers should not have apprehension about prescribing exercise to these patients.”

Different treatment options may be more or less effective for different patients, which is why it’s important for doctors to have a wide range of tools available to help. Thanks to this study, medical professionals can now add exercise to their treatment roster. In combination with medication and therapy, this may help reduce the risk of suicide across our country.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566 (24/7) or text 45645 (4pm til midnight ET).

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.