Anyone who’s ever experienced a runner’s high knows that exercise can give you a quick mood boost, at least temporarily. Now, a new study finds that even a little bit of exercise can help relieve mental health issues like depression and anxiety — and that those benefits are sometimes as good as, or even better, than traditional mental health treatments such as therapy and medication.
This doesn’t mean people struggling with mental health issues should abandon medication or therapy if they’re working, or that exercise can single-handedly resolve everyone’s mental health problems. But “exercise is important and should be sort of prioritized, or at least discussed, alongside a lot of these other treatments,” says Ben Singh, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at the University of South Australia and one of the study’s authors.
The study, published last month in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, reviewed data from hundreds of individual clinical trials on the effectiveness of exercise in managing depression, anxiety, and psychological distress. Overall, the researchers found that physical activity had a moderately positive impact on both depression and anxiety compared to usual care.
Pretty much any type of physical activity can do the trick, as everything from strength workouts to yoga and cardio improved both depression and anxiety symptoms. But the study did uncover a few ways people might be able to maximize the mental health benefits of exercise. For one, high-intensity exercise — like the popular high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts — had the biggest impact on depression.
Importantly, working out more each week doesn’t necessarily translate into greater returns. Generally, people who exercised for less than 2.5 hours each week had slightly better results than people who exercised more than that. Additionally, people who exercised four to five times per week had better results than people who worked out either more or less frequently.
“We think that maybe doing excessive amounts each week just gets too grueling, or maybe it’s not manageable for a lot of people,” Singh says.
Although some of the mental health benefits from exercise may stem from chemicals produced in our bodies in response to working out (like endocannabinoids), some of the benefits might not even come from the exercise itself. Singh says some of the trial data involved group activities, like workout sessions among a group of women with breast cancer, where the social environment could have helped improve their mental health.
That brings up an important point — many people with severe anxiety or depression may struggle to find the motivation to exercise. To this point, Singh stresses that you can start small: “Even just getting out of bed and maybe walking to the mailbox and back, or aiming for maybe two minutes of walking a day.”
Exercising with a friend or family member can also help motivate people, Singh says.
Physical activity doesn’t need to be structured, either. Activities such as walking to catch public transportation and taking your kid to the playground can be a way to get your body moving, he adds.
But Singh cautions that although exercise is generally helpful for mental health, exact results are going to vary from person to person.
“I think the most important thing,” he says, “is that people do any activity they enjoy.”
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