Q&A: Guy Faulkner- Physical Activity and Mental Health

Guy Faulkner, professor in the School of Kinesiology and head of the Population Physical Activity (Pop-PA) Lab, shares his research insights on the relationship between physical activity and mental health.

What does the Pop-PA Lab do?

The Pop-PA Lab conducts research incorporating a range of disciplinary perspectives and research designs, theoretical and methodological approaches in addressing three critical questions:

  • What factors cause or prevent physical (in)activity and sedentary behaviour?
  • How does participation in physical activity influence mental health?
  • How are physical activity initiatives best designed, delivered and disseminated for the general population?

From your research, can you comment on how physical activity impacts or influences mental health?

This is an important relationship to examine. People with good mental health are more likely to be active, and being physically active improves mental health. Looking at how to intervene when this cycle is broken is the key challenge of some of my research.

Can you break down the term “physical activity”? Are some types of physical activity better for mental health than others?

Physical activity is defined as any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that result in energy expenditure. Physical activity in daily life can be categorized into different domains like leisure or recreation, occupational, household, or other activities like travelling to work.

Exercise is physical activity that is planned, structured, and repetitive and often with the goal of improving or maintaining fitness. I think it’s likely a case of different strokes for different folks – different types and doses of physical activity work for people differently and at different times.

There is some suggestion that the physical activity we choose to do, is more reliably associated with better mental health than activity you have less control, interest or choice over – like doing housework.

What advice would you offer to readers who would like to integrate physical activity as an approach to improve their mental health and wellbeing?

The best dose of physical activity for mental health is the dose you’re going to do. Find what you enjoy and do that. It’s got to be a pleasurable experience and of course what people find pleasurable will vary widely among individuals.

Looking at the big picture, what are the most effective physical activity interventions for the general population?

Initiatives supporting active travel – to the workplace or to schools for example – show promise at the population level. Initiatives that help people integrate greater physical activity into their day are more likely to have a sustainable impact.

Can you share some updates from your research?

I have been working on the development of the new Canadian Network for Mood and Anxiety Treatments (CANMAT) 2016 Clinical Guidelines for the Management of Adults with Major Depressive Disorder.

In an important change to the guidelines, exercise is now recommended in Canada as first-line mono therapy (a single treatment for a particular disorder or disease) for mild to moderate depression and as second-line adjunctive treatment (a secondary used together with the primary treatment) for moderate to severe depression. This is an exciting opportunity for examining how kinesiologists can be integrated as part of the mental health care team.

About Dr. Guy Faulkner

Guy FaulknerDr. Guy Faulkner is a Professor in the School of Kinesiology, head of the Population Physical Activity Lab and a Canadian Institutes of Health Research-Public Health Agency of Canada (CIHR-PHAC) Chair in Applied Public Health. Dr. Faulkner is currently an investigator with the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit (OTRU) and a Research Affiliate of the Alberta Centre for Active Living. Dr. Faulkner serves on the ParticipACTION research committee and is a member of the Research Work Group for the annual Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. Dr. Faulkner is the founding editor of the Elsevier journal Mental Health and Physical Activity.

Broadly, his research has focused on two inter-related themes: the development and evaluation of physical activity interventions; and physical activity and mental health. If you would like to learn more about Dr. Faulkner’s research, follow him at @guyfaulkner on Twitter.