Mental Health Benefits of Exercise: How Much Do You Need and How Much is Too Much?

Exercise has mental health benefits too

Do you feel calmer and more tranquil after a workout? Many people turn to yoga, meditation, and mindfulness to get a dose of calm and boost their mental outlook and health. However, there’s evidence that other forms of exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, can boost mental clarity, help you feel more relaxed, and boost mental health.

Science strongly supports the physical health benefits of exercise, but are you aware that moving your body can also improve your mental health? Studies even link higher levels of physical activity with a reduced risk of depression.

Plus, exercise is one of the best natural treatments for the garden variety stress most people encounter daily, like getting caught in traffic, the car breaking down, and spilling coffee on your jacket when you’re ready to head out the door and off to an important meeting. You might wonder how much exercise you need to get mental health benefits. Must you work out for an hour or spend half the day in a gym to get mental peace of mind?

What a Study Showed about Mental Health and Exercise

If you’re worried you’ll have to spend hours at the gym to calm your stressed-out mind, you’re in for a surprise. A study published in Lancet Psychiatry revealed guidelines for how much exercise you might need to soothe your mood. The researchers looked at 1.2 million subjects who answered a mental health survey every 2 years for a 4-year period.

Participants who exercised reported fewer days when they felt stressed out or down relative to those who exercised. In the study, an average of four 45-minute exercise sessions weekly offered the most benefits for easing stress and depression.

This study also shows that more isn’t better when it comes to exercise for mental health. Subjects who worked out longer than 45 minutes daily 4 times per week didn’t enjoy greater benefits, and when they exercised for more than 90 minutes, the mental health benefits were reduced. When the subjects boosted their exercise sessions to several hours per day, they felt even more down and depressed.

The conclusion? The effects of exercise on mood and mental health follow a U-shaped curve. Some exercise is better for mental health than no exercise, but there’s a point of diminishing returns and even a point where exercise has deleterious effects on mood. According to this study, the optimal quantity of exercise each week was around 45 minutes 4 days of the week.

You might not even need 45 minutes of exercise to ward off depression if you increase the intensity of your workouts. A study discussed on Harvard Health found that running for 15 minutes per day or an hour of walking lowered the risk of developing depression. The point is exercise boosts mental health, and it doesn’t take an extraordinary amount to get the benefits.

What Type of Exercise is Most Beneficial for Mental Health?

In the study mentioned, all forms of exercise had some benefit, but exercise that involved group and social interaction, like exercise classes, or group activities, like cycling, led to the greatest boost in mental health and mood. Some benefits may come from the social component of exercising, although research shows that even solitary exercise has some mood-lifting benefits. Whether group exercise or exercising alone is more beneficial for mood may depend on an individual’s personality. Introverts enjoy the silence of working alone, while extroverts thrive on exercising with others.

It makes sense that choosing an exercise that’s pleasurable would offer the most benefits. Plus, it’s easier to stick to an exercise program if the activity is something you enjoy. That’s one of the biggest barriers to exercise consistency. People get bored or don’t enjoy what they’re doing. Choosing a workout plan you enjoy is key to maximizing the mental health benefits of working out.

Why Does Exercise Enhance Mental Health?

Part of the reason exercise is beneficial for mental wellness may be the social component, but as mentioned, but there are other factors. Exercise causes changes in neurotransmitters, like serotonin, that affect mood. Plus, studies show aerobic exercise boosts the release of endorphins, natural chemicals that subdue pain and create a sense of calm. Exercise is also a temporary escape from life, a chance to move your body and increase blood flow to your brain and all the muscles that keep you functional. Through exercise, you escape the grind and get the blood flowing to your brain and muscles.

Studies show that exercise also improves sleep, especially morning workouts. In one study of postmenopausal women, even stretching early in the day improved sleep quality at night. Better sleep is beneficial for mental health and mood. Ever notice how grumpy you feel after not sleeping well? According to research, exercising any time of the day improves sleep quality, but morning workouts have the edge. Even though aerobic exercise is the type of exercise most strongly linked to mental health, weight training builds self-esteem, and can improve your mood and mental health.

The Bottom Line

You don’t need to exercise for hours at a time to enjoy the mental health benefits of exercise. A 45-minute workout, or even less, can boost your mood and help you sleep better. If you struggle with sleep, a morning workout can help you get a better night’s sleep. Plus, you’ll get the physical health benefits of exercise. It’s a small investment in your future physical and mental health. So, keep moving!


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  • “Association between physical exercise and mental health in ….” .thelancet.com/journals/lanpsy/article/PIIS2215-0366(18)30227-X/fulltext?ref=hvper.com.
  • “Physical activity and mental health – The Lancet Psychiatry.” 20 Sept. 2018, .thelancet.com/journals/lanpsy/article/PIIS2215-0366(18)30343-2/fulltext”Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms – Mayo Clinic.” 27 Sept. 2017, .mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/depression-and-exercise/art-20046495.
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