Exercise and Mental Health Go Together Like Avocados and Toast

Photo: Stocksy/Studio Firma
That exercise is good for you is not exactly a revelation; however, according to research, the more you know about those benefits, the more likely you'll be to engage in physical activity. And you might be surprised to read how the mental benefits of exercise stack up against the physical.

Exercise has actually long been scientifically-endorsed as a mental heath hero. Take, for example, one recent finding that indicated just 90 sweaty minutes per week to be effective for significantly preventing participant depression. And now, researchers have drilled down on the types of heart-pumping activities that are the MVPs of keeping you in tip-top mental shape.

The exercise and mental health benefits are worth their weight in sweat

If you, like me, consider watching Jeopardy or playing Candy Crush to be mental exercise, you may be thinking about things all wrong. According to Gregory Scott Brown, MD, FAIHM, founder and director of the Center for Green Psychiatry, physical activity actually grows the brain in size, just like it does your muscles. It also increases the brain's complexity. "Aerobic exercise, specifically, has been found to lead to an increase in blood flow in brain regions like the hippocampus, an area involved in learning, memory, and controlling stress," he says. "Some theories suggest that exercise increases a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor which supports brain health, improves cognitive skills, and helps reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety."

So, physical exercise not only upgrades your brain to make you "smarter" but also enables better moods. "We know that exercise decreases our risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease, but it also decreases our risk for developing depression and it may help reduce symptoms of burnout, stress and anxiety," says Dr. Brown. He tells me that really any type of exercise—cardio, yoga, or strength-training—helps improve mental wellness, so it's dealer's choice. "When it comes to the mind, what's important is that we're moving our body, not the specific type of exercise we are doing," he says. "A large study followed over 30,000 adults for 11 years and found that regular exercise, regardless of intensity, was a protective factor against depression, so there's no need to feel like we have to overdo it."

Which exercises are best for your mental health?

Though not enough research has been done around which types of exercise best boosts overall brain health, the assumption is, again, that anything goes. "Most of the research to date has been done with walking at a moderate intensity," says Dana Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, a senior dietitian at UCLA Medical Center. "But it is speculated that these benefits should be obtained with almost any form of exercise that gets the blood pumping."

That said, a cross-sectional study recently published in The Lancet Psychiatry synthesized data from 1.2 million people in the United States between 2011 to 2015 and concluded that five types of workouts reign supreme for your mental health. Results showed all methods of movement to be staggeringly effective; even doing household chores diminished the number of participants' poor mental health days by 11.8 percent (vacuuming FTW!). But, across the top five exercise buckets, team sports reduced bad mental health days the most, by 22.3 percent, then cycling by 21.6 percent, aerobic or gym exercise by 20.1 percent, running or jogging by 19 percent, and recreational sports (like basketball or softball) by 18.9 percent.

The amount of exercise required to reap these mind-body perks

As for how much activity is needed to real the mental benefits of exercise, Dr. Brown quotes the American Heart Association's recommendation of at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise (e.g., walking, dancing, even gardening) or at least 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity (e.g., running, swimming, or tennis), preferably spread out throughout the course of the week. Hunnes, meanwhile, says that the research often points to walking for roughly an hour at a time. "But as the old adage goes, anything is better than nothing. I think there has been some research indicating that even short bouts of exercise at a time, say 10 minutes here and there during the day, may give similar benefits, especially when it comes to the stroke risk," she says. "And I might speculate that smaller bouts more often might be good as well in that it gives a boost of oxygen and blood to the brain throughout the day as opposed to concentrating it into just one time."

One last note, too: the mental benefits of exercise helps the brain indirectly by enabling us to sleep better at night, says Hunnes. "This is beneficial for brain health by allowing us to have a deeper sleep cycle with REM sleep and is restorative," she says. For best results to this end, Richard J. Castriotta, M.D., FCCP, FAASM, a Professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, advises exercising first thing in the a.m. "We sleep best when we have physical activity during the day, and if you exercise in the morning you'll sleep better at night," he says.

Still, it's important to remember, as Inc. notes, that the exercise–mental health relationship is correlated, not causal. Meaning that, just because the study found a connection between the two, it doesn't necessarily mean that one caused the other. Still, improving a state of mind is hardly a linear path. It often involves zeroing in on various areas of our lives, from supplement regimens and sleep habits to career goals. And yes—forming a #sweatsisterhood for pickup kickball games can totally be part of your personalized mental well-being formula.

Experience the mental benefits of exercise right now with this five-minute workout:

Originally posted December 31, 2019, updated March 20, 2020

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