Using data from 1.2 million respondents gathered from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factors Surveillance System, researchers found that those who exercised reported 43.2 percent fewer days of poor mental health in the past month compared to individuals who did not.
The surveys utilized by the study asked respondents the number of days they experienced bad mental health in the past month and whether or not they exercised during that period. The researchers then split the respondents into two groups, those who exercised and those who did not. Variables such as age, race, gender, marital status, income, education, self-reported physical health, and previous diagnosis of depression were considered in the study.
All forms of exercise resulted in a reduction in mental health burden. Team sports, cycling, and aerobic and gym activities resulted in the highest percent reductions. Any exercise done for 45 minutes, three to five times per week produced similar results. Other physical activities included in the study were childcare, housework, lawn mowing, fishing, running, and skiing.
In fact, exercise seems to have a stronger correlation with improved mental health than other often-analyzed factors. While exercise showed a 43.2 percent reduction in poor mental health, a college education showed only a 17.8 percent reduction compared no education, and an income of over $50,000 showed only a 17 percent reduction compared to an income of less than $15,000.
One important caveat is that a lack of exercise, or lack of motivation to exercise, might itself be due to poor mental health. So while the correlation between exercise and mental health is strong, the evidence for causation is inconclusive.
Additionally, the report indicated that exercising for more than three hours per day had worse results on mental health than those who reported not exercising at all. So while exercise is generally beneficial, too much of it can actually have adverse effects.
Not all research points to a positive correlation between exercise and mental health. A study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 2012 concluded the opposite. Researchers in that study found no significant difference between those treated for depression using usual treatment methods and those treated using usual methods augmented by exercise.
While there is no clear answer as to the specific effects of exercise on mental health, it does appear that those who exercise are more likely to have fewer days in which they experience poor mental health than those who do not.
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