Too Little – or Too Much – Exercise May Impact Your Mental Health

The subject of mental health and exercise comes up a lot, and for good reason, but how much should you do to get the benefits, and how much is too much?

A number of high-quality studies have demonstrated that mental health seems to be better among people who are active, and that people can improved their mental health by undertaking more exercise, even where chronic mental illness is a factor.

However, more evidence is always good for understanding how exercise impacts mental health and, crucially, how much exercise is the right amount for the maximum benefit. That’s precisely what the largest ever study into this topic has tried to do.

In this latest study, which involved 1.2 million people from the US, participants tracked their activity levels and rated their mental wellbeing. When the researchers compared people with similar ages, physical abilities and socioeconomic factors, they found a pronounced pattern: people who said they regularly exercise reported an average of one and a half fewer bad mental health days per person.

Among people who had a previously diagnosed problem with depression, the effect of exercise on mental health appeared to be more pronounced, though it remains to be seen if that effect is long-lasting, or if it might adjust over time and be more or less useful.

“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,” Dr. Adam Chekroud of Yale University told ITV News. ”Exercise is associated with a lower mental health burden across people no matter their age, race, gender, household income and education level.”

It’s important to note that technically this study does not confirm a direct link between exercise and mental wellbeing. Rather, it adds to the body of evidence that there is such a link.

Why Might Exercise Impact Mental Health?

As with all things relating to our brains and how we think, the relationship between exercise and mental wellbeing is a complex and, at times, subjective one. But there are some things we can say for certain about exercise and how our brains work.

Research has demonstrated that when we exercise certain areas of our brain actually get more robust. This isn’t that surprising, if you think about it. Exercise promotes better blood flow, which in turn ensures that all areas of our body are getting the nutrients and oxygen they need to flourish.

Specifically for mental wellness, there is evidence to show that exercise stimulates the hippocampus  and may prompt new growth. The hippocampus is directly involved in mood regulation, so there is reason to suspect that exercise may help to strengthen the bodies mood regulating capabilities.

There are other known effects from exercise that may also improve mental health without directly acting on the brain.

We know that people who regularly exercise are less likely to have chronic health conditions like cardiovascular disease or diabetes. These conditions can be debilitating and impact overall quality of life. This can create a vicious cycle whereby the sufferer experiences depression due to poor physical health, which in turn leads them to be less likely to exercise precisely because they are in a great deal of emotional and physical pain. This reinforces poorer mental health, and the cycle continues.

The converse is true, though. By lowering the likelihood of ill physical health, you can better support mental wellbeing.

How Much Exercise is Good for Mental Health?

One of the problems with such studies is that it remains unclear whether lack of physical activity precedes poorer mental health or is caused by it. By the same token, people who have better mental health may be more likely to exercise.

Given its relatively short timeframe, this research could not overcome this particular obstacle, at least not completely, but it did give some interesting findings on what activities might be more meaningful and how to perform them.

For example, the researchers found that team sports, cycling, aerobics and gym-going tended to produce better results. The study does note, however, that any moderate to taxing physical activity sustained for an extended period of up to 45 minutes had benefits, so even things like mowing the lawn could help.

In terms of how often to exercise for improved mental health, the researchers found that 45 minutes per day for three to five days per week seems to be optimum.

The research was also clear: too much exercise appears to associate with a negative effect on mental wellbeing. Exercising more than 23 times in a month or exercising for longer than 90 minutes per session tended to produce worse mental health outcomes.

Of course, when we look at this, we’re talking about the average US citizen and not, for example, elite athletes who may be in training for an event.

Overall, this research suggests that while exercise will not “cure” depression or mental health problems, it may be one tool which people living with a mental health issue could use to reduce symptoms.

Exercise is, and should be, different for everyone, but the main takeaway from this research is that any exercise activity you enjoy, when done in moderation, could help to improve mental wellness, and that’s a prescription we can all get behind.

Related at Care2

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

26 comments

Marija M
Marija M2 months ago

Thank you.

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Mike R
Mike R2 months ago

Thanks

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Lisa M
Lisa M2 months ago

Thanks.

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Lisa M
Lisa M2 months ago

Thanks.

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Margie FOURIE
Margie FOURIE2 months ago

Thank you

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Danuta W
Danuta W2 months ago

Thanks for sharing

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Linda D
Linda D2 months ago

We were not built to sit around all day, use your legs and get out and walk,run, bike ride or whatever you like doing, just move.

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Amanda McConnell
Amanda M3 months ago

Thanks for sharing

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Amanda McConnell
Amanda M3 months ago

Thanks for sharing

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Alea C
Alea C3 months ago

Tyfs.

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