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Regular not excessive exercise link to better mental health

45 minute exercise three to five times a week had biggest benefits

Adrian O'Dowd

Thursday, 09 August 2018

People who exercise appear to have 1.5 fewer days of poor mental health a month, compared to people who do not exercise, claims a study* published today in The Lancet Psychiatry journal.

A large observational study of 1.2 million people in the USA found that team sports, cycling, aerobics and going to the gym were associated with the biggest reductions in poor mental health.

Exercise is known to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, and mortality from all causes, but its association with mental health remains unclear.

A team of researchers from the UK and USA set out to examine the association in a large sample, and to better understand the influence of exercise type, frequency, duration, and intensity.

In the study, the authors used data from 1,237,194 adults across all 50 US states who completed the Behavioural Risk Factor Surveillance System survey in 2011, 2013, and 2015.

This included demographic data, as well as information about their physical health, mental health, and health behaviours.

Participants were asked to estimate how many days in the past 30 days they would rate their mental health as “not good” based on stress, depression and emotional problems.

They were also asked how often they took part in exercise in the past 30 days outside of their regular job, as well as how many times a week or month they did this exercise and its duration.

All results were adjusted for age, race, gender, marital status, income, education level, employment status, BMI, self-reported physical health and previous diagnosis of depression.

Results showed that, on average, participants experienced 3.4 days of poor mental health each month.

People who exercised reported 1.5 fewer days of poor mental health each month compared to people who reported doing no exercise – two days for people who exercised vs 3.4 days for people who did not exercise.

Overall, there were 75 types of exercise recorded and these were grouped into eight categories including aerobic and gym exercise, cycling, household, team sports, and recreational activity.

All types of exercise were associated with improved mental health, but the strongest associations for all participants were seen for team sports, cycling, aerobic and gym exercise – a reduction in poor mental health days of 22.3%, 21.6%, and 20.1%, respectively.

How often and for how long people completed exercise was also an important factor as the results showed that people who exercised between three and five times a week had better mental health than people who exercised less or more each week.

Exercising for 30-60 minutes was associated with the biggest reduction in poor mental health days compared with people who did not exercise.

Small reductions were still seen for people who exercised more than 90 minutes a day, but exercising for more than three hours a day was associated with worse mental health than not exercising at all.

The authors acknowledged that their study could not confirm cause and effect.

One of the authors Dr Adam Chekroud, assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University, and chief scientist at Spring Health, USA, said: “Previously, people have believed that the more exercise you do, the better your mental health, but our study suggests that this is not the case.

“Doing exercise more than 23 times a month, or exercising for longer than 90 minute sessions is associated with worse mental health.”


*Chekroud, A M, et al. Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1.2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: a cross-sectional study. The Lancet Psychiatry. DOI:10.1016/S2215-0366(18)30227-X.

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