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What type of exercise is best for mental health?

What type of exercise is best for mental health?
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When you go to your weekly yoga class or lift weights at the gym, you’re doing something good for your physical health: get fitter today and protect your body in the future.

What you may not always think about, however, is that you’re also protecting yourself from anxiety and depression just as much as you would if you went to therapy or took medication. At least that’s the conclusion of a very large new study that synthesizes decades of research on exercise and mental health.

The study not only provides this key insight, in fact, the researchers were also able to identify which type of exercise and how much is best for mental health.

How the body supports the mind

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The researchers analyzed the results of more than 1,000 randomized controlled trials, one of the most effective types of trials. These experiments, with more than 128,000 participants, had compared exercise with standard treatments such as simply learning about fitness or getting help setting goals.

Participants engaged in a variety of physical activities, from yoga and tai chi to aerobics and dance to strength training. Some people had various health conditions, while others suffered from depression, anxiety or PTSD. In the original studies, they or their doctors assessed their symptoms of depression, anxiety, and distress before and after their exercise program or treatment.

The results suggested that exercise helped people reduce depression, anxiety and distress even more than usual treatments.

Physical activity can be an effective treatment for mental health problems, says Ben Singh, lead author and researcher at the University of South Australia. He thinks it works in several ways: by releasing endorphins and boosting our mood, improving sleep, reducing stress, supporting self-esteem and confidence, and making us feel accomplished and purposeful.

The findings suggest that exercise is particularly beneficial in certain situations. While the type of exercise didn’t matter, people got more mental health benefits from high-intensity exercise. If you’re doing something that makes you struggle to breathe, in other words, that’s a good sign.

And it seems you don’t have to exercise obsessively to see the benefits; less than 2.5 hours a week was actually better than more. The sweet spot was four to five sessions a week, not every day, but most days. Workouts don’t have to be long; there was no difference between 30-minute and hour-long workouts. Researchers suggest that this moderate amount of exercise may feel more manageable, so it doesn’t become a burden in people’s lives.

The benefits of exercise may not be immediate, Singh says, but they should show up within weeks or months. On top of that, the longer people engaged in exercise, the less beneficial it became for their mental health. This could be because they were sticking to the schedule less, due to decreased motivation or, perhaps, an injury. It could also be because the exercise itself has started to feel less new and more repetitive.

Depending on what you’re dealing with in your life, you may be a better candidate to benefit from exercise. In this study, the groups who saw the greatest reductions in depression were healthy people, as well as those diagnosed with depression, kidney disease, HIV or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The groups that saw the greatest reductions in anxiety were those with anxiety disorders or cancer. It’s possible, the researchers suggest, that these people may have had more room for improvement in terms of mental health.

An exercise prescription

If exercise is so helpful for feelings of depression and anxiety, why aren’t doctors prescribing it more? In the United States, the researchers explain, exercise, sleep and dietary changes are considered complementary alternative treatments if therapy and medications don’t work. But in other countries, like Australia, these lifestyle factors are addressed sooner.

Physical activity is a safe and effective way to improve mental health and is a treatment that should be considered alongside other treatments, such as therapy and medications, Singh says.

One reason it may not be considered is the difficulty of tracking exercise and getting people to follow the recommendations. Depression, in particular, can reduce our motivation and energy. If so, Singh suggests a few ways to motivate yourself to exercise:

Start small. If you’re not used to exercising, start with small goals, like walking 10 minutes a day or doing some light stretching. As you get more comfortable with exercising, you can gradually increase the intensity or duration of your workouts.

Find an activity you enjoy. If you don’t like the type of exercise you’re doing, you’re less likely to continue it. Try different activities until you find one you really like. Some people enjoy running, swimming, cycling, yoga, dancing, or hiking. You may also want to try group exercise classes or work out with a friend.

Make exercise a habit. The more you practice, the easier it becomes. Try to make exercise a regular part of your routine, like taking a walk after work or working out first thing in the morning.

Set realistic goals. Don’t try to do too much too soon. Start with small goals and gradually increase the intensity or duration of your workouts as you work out.

Reward yourself. When you reach a goal, reward yourself with something you enjoy. This will help keep you motivated and on track.

Do not give up. There will be days when you don’t feel like working out. But it is important to overcome these days and continue to train. The more you exercise, the better you will feel.

For people dealing with depression, especially, Singh suggests going easy on yourself and getting help when needed, the responsibility of an exercise partner, or the advice of doctors or therapists to help you stick with it. Exercise can be a helpful part of treatment, but it’s not a cure, he says. He does not replace current treatments such as medications and counseling.

That said, it’s something you can do that’s affordable, with few side effects, and many benefits beyond just mental health. Why not give it a try?


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