Exercise has proven benefits for improving physical health. But what about mental health?
Exercise has proven benefits for improving physical health. But what about mental health? For starters, active people are nearly 45% less likely to have depressive symptoms than inactive people (Booth, Roberts & Laye 2012). But a deeper look at the connections between exercise and mental health raises more questions:
In a recent study to link mental health with exercise, the survey asked, “During the past month, other than your regular job, did you participate in any physical activities or exercises such as running, calisthenics, golf, gardening or walking for exercise?” A yes response prompted this follow-up: “What type of physical activity or exercise did you spend the most time doing during the past month?”
The researchers identified 75 types of exercise which they grouped into eight categories to help the participants specify their physical activities: walking, popular sports, cycling, aerobic or gym workouts, running or jogging, recreational, household, and winter or water sports. Survey respondents reported the number of times per week or month they did each type of exercise and the length of a typical session in minutes or hours.
An analysis of 852,068 adults (out of 1.2 million surveyed) associated exercisers with 43.2% fewer self-reported mental health burdens per month than non-exercisers.
The study observed this correlation across all ages, racial groups and household income levels.
Yes: Doing any type of exercise is associated with fewer mental health burdens compared with not exercising. In the study, the strongest correlations were for popular sports (22.3% fewer), cycling (21.6% fewer), and aerobic and gym exercises (20.1% fewer). An exploratory analysis conducted after the main study found that mindful exercises such as yoga and tai chi were associated with a 22.9% reduction in mental health burdens.
Yes: Exercise sessions lasting between 30 and 60 minutes correlated with the fewest mental health burdens—45 minutes produced the best effect consistently across all exercise types.
Yes: Survey respondents who exercised 3–5 times a week had fewer mental health burdens than those who exercised less than 3 times or more than 5. This pattern persisted across all exercise types for light, moderate and vigorous intensities.
Yes: The study found that vigorous exercise was linked to better mental health outcomes than either light or moderate exercise.
Chekroud et al. is the largest cross-sectional study to investigate the effects of exercise on mental health. Here is what works.
1. One in five adults has a mental illness (that’s about 44.7 million people in the US alone).
2. Young adults have the highest prevalence.