Which exercise best supports your mental health (according to research)
Cycling or walking to and from work are among the best exercises for our mental health, according to a new paper, published in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity. Along with active transport, any leisure activity we enjoy, whether it’s playing football, hitting the gym or going for a stroll, also reap mental health rewards.
At the other end of the scale, physical activity at work and housework have the least positive impact.
Actively enjoying what you do leads to the best mental health benefits. Credit:Getty
For the analysis, lead author Dr Megan Teychenne, from Deakin University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, and her colleagues examined the existing research on the effect of different types of activity. They also looked at different durations and doses of activity as well as whether or not the person chose to do the activity.
They found no difference between aerobic or muscle-strengthening activities, however, those who do both have the “lowest likelihood of depressive symptoms”. Being active in nature also boosts mood more than indoor activity.
The level of intensity, the duration and the dose also made less of a difference than just doing something.
“We know for physical health benefits that people should be undertaking 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous. But for mental health benefits the dose of physical activity is likely not to be so important,” Teychenne says. “We know that even low doses of physical activity – going for a walk twice a week – has been shown to be linked to a reduced risk of depression.”
This is significant given that the majority of the population don’t meet the physical activity guidelines and that people who experience mental illness are even less likely to meet them.
“It doesn’t have to be in a half-hour block, for example,” Teychenne says. “It’s often a lot more achievable if the physical activity is accumulated in 10-minute bouts throughout the day. [For example] parking your car 10 minutes away from work and walking.”
And while they were unable to determine a minimum duration, some research has found just three bouts of stair-climbing for one minute at a time is enough to improve mood and decrease feelings of tension and fatigue.
The activity doesn’t have to be of a high-intensity to be effective, she adds.
In fact, while the evidence around high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and mental health is limited, some research suggests it is associated with more negative affective states during participation.
“It does come down to your preference,” Teychenne says. “If someone enjoys HIIT, working at a vigorous intensity, and many people do, then they’re more likely to gain that mental health benefit.
“If you’re being forced or you really don’t enjoy vigorous-intensity activity or your body isn’t able to cope with that then you’re less likely to enjoy it and you’re less likely to see the mental health benefits. It’s not a one-size-fits-all.”
This means that while physiological mechanisms (e.g., stimulation of neuroplastic processes, reduction of inflammation, increases in resilience to physiological stress) play a part, so too do psychological factors when it comes to the effect of physical activity on our mental health.
“Factors such as enjoyment, mastery of skills/goals, autonomous motivation, choice, social interaction, and a sense of belonging likely influence the relationship between physical activity and mental health,” Teychenne says.
“It’s about being able to select what physical activity you do to get that enjoyment from to really gain those mental health benefits.”
It is the choice and enjoyment, or lack there-of that may explain why work or domestic-related activities seem to have little benefit from a wellbeing perspective.
It’s about being able to select what physical activity you do to get that enjoyment from to really gain those mental health benefits.
“If you’re vacuuming the floors at home, for example, you might not be getting enjoyment from that activity because you’re feeling forced to do it so you may not see the mental health benefits,” Teychenne explains.
The researchers have sent the paper to the WHO Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee, who will meet in February 2020, in the hope that they will address the points raised and look at amending global guidelines.
“Physical activity is a key fact for reducing the risk of a number of mental health conditions so it’s really important that the guidelines acknowledge that,” she says.
“We don’t want to confuse the public with lots of different messaging, but we want to identify that there is a gap in the current global physical activity recommendations … it would be quite simple to extend those guidelines to ensure physical activity is going to have the best impact on mental health.”
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