The greatest wealth is health

Exercising to reduce poor mental health

Most of us are aware that exercising is associated with a reduced risk of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes but its association with mental health has remained unclear.

A new study has found that people who undertake physical activity for 45 minutes, three to five times a week, can reduce poor mental health.

What type of exercise is best?

All types of exercise were tied to improved mental health, while those who participated in popular team sports saw the largest associated reduction in poor mental health days:

  • Team sports (22.3% lower)
  • Cycling (21.6% lower)
  • Aerobic/gym activities (20.1% lower).

Even walking was associated with a 17·7% reduction in mental health burden relative to not exercising. Aerobic exercise can reduce your levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone”. It also stimulates the release of endorphins, the “feel good hormones”, leading to a feeling of mild euphoria , which can reduce anxiety and make you happier. In fact, all types of activity were found to improve mental health no matter people's age or gender, including doing the housework and looking after the children.

People who exercised had 1.5 fewer "bad days" a month than non-exercisers and if they had a mental health problem, bigger benefits were seen, because stress can be a trigger for other conditions. Among individuals with a previous diagnosis of depression, those who exercised had 3·75 fewer days of poor mental health each month.

However, doing too much exercise is not always beneficial. Doing exercise more than 23 times a month, or exercising for longer than 90-minute sessions, is associated with worse mental health. This may be related to being "addicted" to exercise, wherein exercise starts to impact on other aspects of life.

Further study is needed but the study ties in well with PHE's suggestion that we do 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week including strengthening and balancing exercises.