Study shows regular exercise is associated with improved mental health

People who exercise report experiencing 1.5 fewer days of poor mental health per month, compared with individuals who do not exercise, according to research by U.S. researchers.

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The study, which included 1.2 million people and is the largest of its kind, showed that team sports, cycling, gym workouts and aerobics were associated with the most benefit.

However, exercise was not always beneficial; exercising for more than three hours a day was associated with worse mental health than not exercising at all.

The authors note that people who exercise excessively might have obsessive tendencies that could increase their risk of poor mental health.

The study, which has recently been published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry, found that exercising for 45 minutes three to five times a week was associated with the largest reduction in poor mental health.

For the study, the team used data available for 1.2 million people who completed the Behavioural Risk Factor Surveillance System survey in 2011, 2013, and 2015. The participants reported how many days in the last 30 days they would class their mental health as “not good” and how often they took part in exercise outside of their job during that period.

After adjustment for factors such as age, race, education level, income, marital status, employment status, BMI, and previous depression diagnosis, the average number of days participants reported experiencing poor mental health was 3.4.

Compared with individuals who reported not exercising, those who did exercise reported 1.5 fewer days of poor mental health per month.

The largest reduction in the number of poor mental health days was seen among people with a previous diagnosis of depression.

Overall, 75 types of exercise were reported on all of which were associated with improved mental health. However, the strongest improvements were seen for team sports (reduction in poor mental health days of 22.3%, cycling (21.6%), aerobic and gym exercise (20.1%).

How frequently and how long people exercised for was an important factor. People who exercised three to five times per week had better mental health than individuals who exercised more or less each week.

Exercising for a duration of 30 to 60 minutes was associated with the greatest benefit, whereas exercising for more than three hours a day was associated with worse mental health outcomes than not completing any exercise.

Dr Adam Chekroud, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Yale University, says depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide and that there is an urgent need to find ways to improve mental health through population health campaigns.

Referring to the study, he says:

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."

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