Exercise can substantially improve mental health

Adults who exercise report having fewer days of poor mental health each month compared to people who do not exercise.

A recent analysis has found that adults who exercise report having fewer days of poor mental health each month compared to people who do not exercise. In the observational study, which is the largest of its kind, the experts linked the biggest mental health improvements with team sports, cycling, aerobics, and going to the gym.

On the other hand, the researchers discovered that more exercise is not always better. The greatest mental health benefits were associated with 45 minutes of exercise between three and five times per week.

While exercise is known to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, and mortality from all causes, its association with mental health has been somewhat of a mystery. Previous research has found that exercise may improve mental health, yet conflicting results have been documented.

Dr. Adam Chekroud is an assistant professor of Psychiatry at Yale University, and Chief Scientist at Spring Health.

“Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and there is an urgent need to find ways to improve mental health through population health campaigns,” said Dr. Chekroud. “Exercise is associated with a lower mental health burden across people no matter their age, race, gender, household income and education level.”

“Excitingly, the specifics of the regime, like the type, duration, and frequency, played an important role in this association. We are now using this to try and personalise exercise recommendations, and match people with a specific exercise regime that helps improve their mental health.”

The investigation was focused on 1.2 million adults across the United States who had participated in the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey in 2011, 2013, and 2015. The individuals reported on their physical health, mental health, and exercise behaviors.

On average, participants experienced 3.4 days of poor mental health each month. Those who exercised reported 1.5 fewer days of a struggle, which is a reduction of 43.2 percent.

For people who had been previously diagnosed with depression, the positive impact of exercise was found to be even broader. These individuals reported having 3.75 fewer days of poor mental health compared with people who did not exercise.

Exercising for 30-60 minutes was associated with the biggest reduction in poor mental health days. Small reductions were still seen for people who exercised more than 90 minutes per day, but exercising for more than three hours a day was associated with worse mental health than no exercise whatsoever

“Previously, people have believed that the more exercise you do, the better your mental health, but our study suggests that this is not the case,” explained Dr. Chekroud. “Doing exercise more than 23 times a month, or exercising for longer than 90 minute sessions is associated with worse mental health.”

“Our finding that team sports are associated with the lowest mental health burden may indicate that social activities promote resilience and reduce depression by reducing social withdrawal and isolation, giving social sports an edge over other kinds.”

The study is published in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer