YES, exercise makes a difference to your mental health!
Enhanced mental and emotional wellbeing, reduced stress, improved mood, better quality of life, reduction in depressive symptoms and anxiety … these are just some of the mental health benefits shown to come from exercise.
There is an abundance of scientific research that overwhelmingly indicates exercise benefits your mental health. In fact, 89 percent of all relevant published peer-reviewed research between 1990 and 2020 found a positive, statistically significant relationship between physical activity and mental health.
It appears that exercise works to improve mental health through biological pathways, such as increasing brain neurotransmitters and improving hormone function, and through social and self-efficacy pathways. Exercise can play a protective role by reducing mental illness risk, as well as help promote long-term mental wellness.
The ideal type of exercise
Studies show that high-intensity exercise is generally more effective than low-intensity. Cardio exercise in particular is strongly associated with helping reduce depression and having a moderate but reliable effect on symptoms associated with anxiety disorders. For the optimal fitness regime, try alternating strength training with cardio exercise, as this combination is shown to deliver stronger mental health benefits than either one alone.
If low-intensity exercise is your preference, know that mindfulness-based activities like yoga and tai chi, which help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, are likely to deliver more mental health benefits than walking. And wherever possible, get social with your exercise. Research shows those who do team sports, cycling, and aerobic or gym exercise report 20 percent fewer “poor mental health” days per month.
The ideal amount and frequency of exercise
It’s no surprise that frequently exercising between three and five times a week will more significantly reduce depressive symptoms than if you just tick off one workout a week. However, more exercise is not always better. Experts have identified a U-shaped curve, indicating poorer mental health amongst those who exercise less than three times a week, and those who exercise more than five times a week.
Is there an optimal dose? Working out for between 30 and 45 minutes three to five times a week seems to be ideal. However, experts note there is no perfect one-size-fits-all approach and there is a need for further research into frequency, intensity, type and time of exercise to provide a stronger data-driven prescription.
Focusing on physical activity to improve mental health is nothing new. As far back as 500 B.C. Gautama Buddha is recorded as saying, “To keep the body in good health is a duty... otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.”
The need to take action to nurture mental health has never been greater. According to the World Health Organisation, 264 million people around the globe suffer from depression –one of the leading causes of disability worldwide. 18 percent of adults in the United States are living with a mental illness. And Covid has escalated the issue. According to the American Psychological Association’s March 2022 Stress in America study, Covid has taken a substantial toll on people's mental health, with 58 percent of Americans reporting they experience stress every day as a result of the pandemic.
Those who suffer from mental disorders can have their life cut short by a decade – a 2015 meta-analysis showed a median of 10 years of life lost by those suffering from mental illness. The same analysis showed 14.3 percent of deaths can be pinned on mental disorders – that’s approximately eight million deaths a year.
The insights in this article come from the Move Your Mental Health Report, an overview of 30 years of scientific evidence published on the link between exercise and mental health. The report considers the overall themes and findings from 1444 articles and is designed to help people introduce an evidence-based approach to nurturing mental health with physical activity.
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