December 16, 2019

Exercise and Mental Health Benefits

The effects of exercise on mental health are finally getting some much-needed attention in the scientific community.

For a long time, a growing body of research has connected regular exercise and keeping active in general, with reduced risk of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer.

Meanwhile, the relationship between physical activity, brain health and psychological wellbeing has remained largely unexplored.

That is, until recently.

According to a new cross-sectional study, it is becoming clear there are considerable benefits to mental wellbeing across a broad variety of exercise types. 

Lancet Psychiatry recently took on the challenge, exploring the association between exercise and mental health burden in a large sample factoring in exercise type, frequency, duration, and intensity. 

They found that individuals who exercised in the past month self-reported fewer days (43.2%) of poor mental health than those that did not exercise but were otherwise matched for several physical and sociodemographic variables.

All activity types including aerobic or gym, cycling, running or jogging, walking and popular team sports were linked to lower mental health burden. The minimum reduction was 11.8% and the largest reductions seen were in social sports (22.3%), cycling (21.6%), and aerobic and gym training groups (20.1%).

These findings suggest that regardless of the type of activity you choose, there can still be a significant shift towards improvement.

What’s more important than the activity type, is simply that you continue to stay active.

Looking at frequency and duration across the entire sample and still consistent across all exercise categories, frequencies of 3-5 times per week and 45 minutes in duration demonstrated the most favourable outcomes. 

Interestingly, individuals exercising less than 3 times or greater than 5 times were linked with greater mental health burden. 

As a function of duration, exercising less than 30 minutes each session was linked to higher mental health burden while durations longer than 60 minutes generally fared no better than 45-minute durations.


  • All exercise types were associated with lower mental health burden.
  • Among the top-performing types were aerobic or gym training, cycling, running or jogging, walking, and playing popular team sports.
  • More is not necessarily better. 45-minute durations and 3-5 sessions per week were associated with mental health improvements.

Chekroud et al. 2018. Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1.2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: a cross-sectional study

Danny James

Danny James is a Strength and Conditioning Coach and Personal Trainer with over ten years of experience working with the fastest track and field youth athletes in the country. He lives in Sydney, Australia with his beautiful wife Fabiana. Sign up for Danny's free newsletter and receive tips, insights and exclusive email-only content.

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