Study: People Who Exercise Have 40% Better Mental Health

A recent study  published in  The Lancet  with over 1.2 million participants has confirmed my exercise recommendations in The Awakened Ape.  In this post I’ll show the answers to some interesting questions about exercise and mental health.

How do the authors define mental health?

The variable for mental health was the number of days in the last month where you experienced stress, depression or had other emotional problems.

The people who exercised had 40% better mental health. But what does 40% better mental health mean?

People who exercise had 40% less days where they felt stressed, depressed or had other emotional problems.

The What, When and How Often of Exercise

What is the best type of exercise for your mental health?

Popular sports is #1 and cycling is #2. In The Awakened Ape I said that playing sports is the most natural form of exercise as it mimics the reasons why our ancestors exercised. They hunted and gathered with a common goal and as part of a team.

And cycling is just awesome. Also, the balance required for biking activates areas of the brain that is similar to a mild meditative state.

How long should one exercise for?

The above chart shows the number of bad mental health days per month on the vertical axis, while  the time in minutes exercising is on the horizontal axis. The lower the line, the better your mental health.

The sweet spot for exercise is 45 minutes. People gain the most mental health benefit for exercising for this duration unless you are playing popular sports, where 100 minutes is the best or cycling which reaches its peak at 45 minutes and stays there even if you bike for up to 3 hours. Recreational activity just keeps getting better the longer you do it.

How many days a week should you exercise?

The authors claim that 3-5 days per week is the sweet spot. Less than 3 days a week and you aren’t doing enough, and more than 5 days a week and you might be burning yourself out.  5 days a week seems to be the perfect amount for all but water sports.

This coincides with hunter-gatherer data as well, they didn’t exercise everyday but took a few days off a week to relax and recuperate. Too much exercise can actually raise your cortisol level and exercising everyday appears to be as bad for your mental health as not exercising at all.

How does exercising compare to other variables when it comes to mental health?

Huge effect.  40% fewer bad mental health days is a giant reduction. Compare that to living in poverty (17% more days of bad mental health compared to people making more than 50k per year). It’s much better to live in poverty and exercise than to make a lot of money but not exercise. So if you are choosing between putting in that overtime work or joining a rec league, you now know what to do.


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