A large new study does suggest that playing sports on a team can help boost your mood better than exercising on your own, although overall it found that physically active people had fewer days of poor mental health per month than those who didn’t exercise. The biggest benefits came from working out for 45 minutes three to five times a week.
The study included 1.2 million people from all 50 states who were asked to estimate how many days over the previous month they suffered from stress, depression and emotional problems. On average, the participants reported experiencing 3.4 days of poor mental health per month. They also provided information on how often they exercised during the same period and for how long.
The researchers looked at 75 types of physical activity, ranging from housework, lawn-mowing and fishing to running, skiing, cycling and going to the gym. They saw the most significant improvements in mental health in participants who played team sports, bicycled, performed aerobic exercise and went to the gym.
Study leader Adam Chekroud, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University, noted that regular exercise is associated with a lower mental health burden regardless of a person’s age, race, gender, household income or education level. Based on the new findings, he said it would be possible to try to personalize exercise recommendations and match people with a specific activity that can help boost mental health.
Dr. Chekroud also noted that too much exercise is not necessarily beneficial for mental health. Results showed that exercising more often than 23 times a month or for longer than 90 minutes per session were linked with worse mental health. The study also found that exercising for more than 3 hours a day was associated with worse mental health than not exercising at all. The researchers suggested that people performing extreme amounts of exercise might have obsessive characteristics that could place them at greater risk for emotional problems.
I’ve long been a proponent of regular physical activity as a means of dealing with mild to moderate depression. For immediate relief there is no better or more natural approach than aerobic exercise. Many studies have demonstrated its efficacy. For best results I recommend 30 minutes of continuous activity, at least five days a week. Bear in mind that gardening and yard work also offer mental health benefits – they help you connect with nature, can improve your mood, and offer a sense of accomplishment. But don’t overlook the physical benefits: yard work and gardening can mean digging, lifting, carrying, pushing, pulling and more – all aerobic activities that can help boost your mood. And based on the latest findings if you’re so inclined, team sports may work best for you. Here’s where you can find more of my recommendations for exercise to benefit emotional wellness.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Adam M Chekroud 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, August 8, 2018; DOI: 10.1016/S2215-0366(18)30227-X