Suicide is a complex and devastating public health issue that affects millions of people worldwide. Despite advances in mental health treatment and suicide prevention efforts, rates of suicide continue to rise, particularly among vulnerable populations such as those with mental or physical illness. Previous research demonstrated that teens with high sedentary behavior had twice the risk of a suicide attempt vs those with low daily sedentary time. There is growing interest in interventions that may reduce the risk of suicide, including promoting physical activity.
Exercise has been shown to have numerous physical and mental health benefits. But can exercise also help prevent suicidal behaviors? In this systematic review and meta-analysis, researchers explore the potential protective effect of exercise against suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and death by suicide in people with mental or physical illness. By examining the existing evidence on this topic, we hope to shed light on a promising new avenue for suicide prevention efforts.
The key findings of this systematic review and meta-analysis were that exercise may have a significant protective effect against suicidal behaviors in people with mental or physical illness. The study found that even though people who exercised had thoughts about suicide just as often, the likelihood of acting on those thoughts by attempting to end one’s life was 77% lower among people in exercise interventions compared to control groups. Death by suicide was 36% less likely among exercisers, but this difference did not achieve statistical significance. The randomized controlled trials included in this study were selected through a comprehensive search of multiple databases and were analyzed using established methods for meta-analyses. However, there was a high risk of bias in many studies. Depression was the most common condition in these studies, but people with menopause, breast cancer, sickle cell, and Huntington’s were included in one study each.
Although further research is needed to better understand the mechanisms underlying this effect, and to identify optimal exercise interventions for different populations, these findings suggest that exercise reduces the chance that a person suffering with depression or a medical illness will act on suicidal thoughts. Possible mechanisms include exercise providing relief from distress, improving depression, generating optimism or facilitating social connectedness.
Promoting regular physical activity appears to have important potential as a suicide prevention strategy that could serve us well in an age of growing mental health and suicide crises.
If you are interested in learning more about the connection between lifestyle medicine and mental health, check out a previous post on how physical activity may affect symptoms of depression, anxiety, and psychological distress. Other lifestyle behaviors, such as diet and sleep, may also impact mental health, and this is outlined in detail here.