by Leah Harris
Our physical and mental health are deeply intertwined. The state of our mind can affect the health of our bodies. Physical activity has been widely correlated with a reduction in depression and anxiety, which in turn can increase physical well-being, which further improves mental health, and so on. Movement also offers an accessible alternative to persons who cannot afford or access traditional psychotherapy, or who have not found such therapies to be beneficial. And recently, researchers at Yale and Oxford published a study indicating that exercise may be more important to our mental health than economic status!
This month, we’re taking a deeper look at the relationship between physical activity and our mental health. What kinds of physical activity are best — not just for our bodies, but for our minds? What is the “sweet spot” amount of movement that leads to the greatest mental health benefits? And what are alternative options for persons who cannot perform physical activity due to illness or disability?
A 2018 study in The Lancet found that team sports seemed to offer the greatest overall mental health benefits. The researchers analyzed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey data from 1.2 million adults and found — across age, gender, education status and income — people who exercised had fewer “bad mental health days” than those who didn’t. And people who played team sports reported the fewest. The study’s authors hypothesized that team sports may be so beneficial to mental health because they incorporate the added benefit of community and social support. This is especially relevant for people living with depression or other mental health conditions where isolation is common. A related benefit of team sports is built-in accountability. While you can blow off a solo walk in nature, your team is depending on you to win the game. If team sports aren’t for you, research has demonstrated the self-esteem boosting benefits of activities using synchronized group movements, such as Qi Gong or Tai Chi.
While we know that a lack of physical activity can influence the course of our mental health, more movement does not necessarily mean more benefit. A 2018 study published in The Lancet found that those who exercised more than 90 minutes a day, for most days of the month, reported worse mental health than those who moved less. Generally, researchers recommend a rule of thumb of 30-60 minutes a day, 3-5 times a week for optimum well-being.
When discussing the relationship between physical activity and mental health, it’s important to provide accessible alternatives to people with limited mobility due to disability, illness, or aging. A practice with similar physical and mental health benefits to sustained physical activity is simply spending time in nature. Just 30-40 minutes spent sitting quietly or wandering slowly in a green space, breathing mindfully, can improve mood and even immune function, according to research conducted on the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing.
Here’s to moving this spring for our mental health.
To learn more, check out these resources!
- A New Prescription For Depression: Join A Team And Get Sweaty (NPR.org)
- Exercise Can Make You Happier Than Money, According to Research From Yale and Oxford (Inc.com)
- Physical activity effective add-on treatment for severe mental illness (Healio.com)
- Living Well: The relationship between physical and mental health (Craig Press)
- Can Exercising Too Much Affect Your Mental Health? (U.S. News and World Report)
- How simply moving benefits your mental health (Harvard Health Blog)