Want the mental health benefits of exercising? Less may be more

Want the mental health benefits of exercising? Less may be more

Recently published research in The Lancet Psychiatry says that just two hours each week of whatever exercise you choose may make a significant impact on mental health, even lessening or preventing depression.

More than 1.2 million U.S. adults responded to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey between 2011 and 2015. The study researchers analyzed participant data, which included questions about exercise, lifestyle habits, health history and days per month of poor mental health.

Participants who exercised – through various forms – experienced about 1.5 fewer bad mental health days per month than those who did not, the average among all being 3.36 gloomy days per month. And those who were previously diagnosed with depression, who tended to have more days of depression per month than average, had 3.75 fewer days of poor mental health per month if they exercised, compared to those previously diagnosed with depression who didn’t exercise.

Digging deeper, researchers found:

  • Those who exercised for about 45 minutes per session saw better mental health results than those who favored lengthy and grueling “marathon” workouts.
  • Breaking a sweat three to five times a week was better for mental health than not working out or working out more than five days a week.

Researchers concluded that two to six hours a week of exercise may be optimal for better mental health. The researchers did not examine why six hours may be the upper limit on good mental health strides, but study co-author Adam Chekroud, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University, did theorize that excessive and obsessive exercising may be indicative of worse mental health. He also stated that those who don’t work out at all might be missing out on the mind-enhancing effects of fitness, which he says may actually change the way the brain functions.

In their various analysis, researchers also found that while all physical activity is good, certain types of exercise helped mental health more:

  • Team sports reduced gloomy days by 22.3%
  • Cycling came in second with a 21.6% reduction
  • Aerobic/gym workouts reduced bad days by 20.1%
  • Exercises that focused on meditation and mindfulness, such as yoga and tai chi, were better for mental health than walking

“I don’t think we pay enough attention to the importance of exercise in improving and maintaining our mental health,” says Dr. Leah Ustas, a psychiatrist affiliated with Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill. “These results are exciting because the amount of exercise needed to see benefit is within reach for most of us.”

“It’s important to note that the federal guidelines for physical activity recommend 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity or 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week, along with two strength training sessions weekly,” says Dr. Ustas. “While this study focused on any type of physical activity to boost mental health, it’s important for overall physical health, weight management and maintaining muscle mass to vary your exercise routine.”

If you are starting a new physical fitness regimen, it’s a good idea to discuss your fitness level with your physician in advance.

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About the Author

Kate Eller
Kate Eller

Kate Eller was a regional director of public affairs and marketing operations for Advocate Health Care. She enjoys road trips, dogs, minimalism, yoga, hiking, and “urban hiking.”