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September 28, 2018

The right way to exercise for mental health, according to 'the largest study of its kind'

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on June 21, 2021.

    Exercise can help improve mental health—and group activities and team sports have the biggest positive effects on one's mental wellbeing, according to a study published this month in The Lancet.

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    Study details

    For the study, researchers analyzed data from a CDC survey containing 1.2 million adults' responses on their daily exercise habits and mental health. The researchers controlled for factors like age, race, and body mass index, and separated a total of 75 exercise activities—including sports like golf, soccer, and tai chi—into different categories.

    The researchers then assessed how exercise duration, frequency, intensity, and type affected the number of days an individual deemed their mental health as "not good." According to the Wall Street Journal, the study is the largest of its kind.


    Overall, the researchers found that respondents who exercised reported an average of two days of "not good" mental health over the four weeks leading up to the survey, compared with an average of 3.4 "not good" days reported by respondents who didn't exercise. According to Adam Chekroud, the senior author on the study and a chief scientist and co-founder of the mental-health startup Spring Health, respondents who exercised reported 43% "fewer days of poor mental health" than those who didn't exercise.

    The researchers found that the affects were more significant among respondents who reported having been diagnosed with depression. According to the study, such individuals who exercised reported 3.75 fewer days of poor mental health when compared with such individuals who did not exercise.

    The researchers also looked at what form of exercise had the greatest effects, finding that group exercise activities and team sports were strongly correlated with individuals reporting fewer poor mental health days, followed by both road and stationary cycling.

    For example, individuals who said they played team sports reported 22.3% fewer poor mental health days than those who didn't exercise, while respondents who reported practicing yoga or tai chi had 22.9% fewer poor mental health days than those who didn't exercise. In comparison, individuals who said they ran for exercise reported 19% fewer poor mental health days than respondents that did not exercise at all. Chekroud said the "social components" of the team sports and group exercises might have helped to improve respondents' mental health.

    The duration and frequency of exercise also can make a difference, the researchers found. According to the study, respondents who exercised for a duration of 45 minutes three to five times per week saw the best effects. But there are limits, Chekroud said, explaining that individuals who exercised for more than 90 minutes saw no "extra benefit."


    According to the Journal, the study's findings could reinforce the notion that any exercise is better than no exercise when it comes to improving mental health.

    Chekroud said the results reinforce previous research that found a correlation between mental health and exercise. "It seems like there are some sweet spots, and the relationship is probably complex. But even things like walking or household chores seem to have benefits," he said.

    However, Chekroud cautioned that because the study wasn't a randomized control study, "[i]t can't explain if poor mental health causes people to exercise less or exercise causes people to have better mental health" (Reddy, Wall Street Journal, 8/20; Chekroud et al., The Lancet, 9/1).

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    Programs aimed at promoting healthy habits among employees are likely to lead to improved employee engagement and productivity—but they're unlikely to reduce the total cost of care. To do that, you'll need to take a population health approach.

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