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Can exercise help prevent suicide?

Suicide is a complex issue, with many contributing factors, including mental health. For example, Warfighters with depression and anxiety (including post-traumatic stress disorder/PTSD) are much more likely to commit suicide than those without these diagnoses. Given the complexity, it’s important to address suicide and mental health concerns from many directions.

Recent efforts within the military have raised awareness about suicide risk factors, attempted to decrease stigma for those seeking mental health treatments (such as the Real Warriors campaign), highlighted the importance of early intervention, and adapted a holistic approach for enhancing mental health.

One promising approach to help improve mental health is the activity that keeps Warfighters physically strong: a daily dose of exercise.

Ample evidence shows that exercise positively affects mental health. Regular exercise buffers against depression and anxiety, promotes calmness, enhances mood, helps protect against the negative effects of stress, protects the brain from degeneration, and increases the brain’s ability to adapt after new experiences. Regular exercise by itself may not erase suicidal thoughts, but it can reduce feelings of depression, which may in turn impact thoughts of suicide. For example, moderate-intensity physical exercise is recognized as an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression when practiced at least 30 minutes a day most days of the week (or the equivalent weekly sum).

Finally, with a broader lens, physical fitness can bolster resilience through its ability to blunt one’s reactions to stress, buffer against a range of mental health issues, protect against emotional stress and enhance overall health and wellness. Although exercise is not a solution by itself, exercise can be part of a comprehensive program to improve mental health as well as social connections and hopefulness. All of these factors contribute to reducing the possibility of depression and other potentially risky behaviors, including suicide.