It’s not just exercise that improves your mental health – intensity and type matters too

Don’t walk, run! At least that’s what you should do if you want to give your mental health maximum benefit.

In a study of around 100 systemic reviews covering one thousand trials and nearly 130,000 participants, researchers at the University of South Australia found exercise had the largest benefits among those with disorders and diseases like depression.

People with other conditions like HIV, kidney disease, and pregnant and post-partum women were also found to draw positive mental health benefit from exercise.

While knowledge of the positive mental health exercise has been established for some time, this large-scale analysis has given scientists more precise insights into what makes it improve the mind.  And they believe that health practitioners could be more specific when introducing exercise into a patient’s conversation.

Literally running away from your problems might just give you new ones

Although research is increasingly showing exercise as a viable component of mental health therapies, analysing many individual studies allowed the researchers to interrogate how different types of exercise may have benefits for specific groups.

According to lead author Dr Ben Singh, weight training was found to have a sizeable benefit for people with depression. For those with anxiety, movement-based exercises like yoga and Pilates were beneficial.

But exercising at higher intensity levels was found to deliver the greatest overall benefit to mental health. 

“Any intensity of exercise is beneficial, but our findings also show that if you can do slightly higher or greater intensities, that tends to be more beneficial,” Singh said.

The findings demonstrate exercise as a potentially valuable tool for clinicians to consider when developing patient therapy.

But while exercise was found to have a bigger immediate impact over counselling and medication, Singh says those results should be interpreted cautiously.

Instead, exercise could provide another support to people, along with other common treatments.

“It provides evidence to say that exercise should be at least included in the conversation when health professionals and GPs are prescribing treatments for their patients,” Singh says.

“So we don’t want it to be replacing current treatments, such as medications or psychotherapy, because we do know that they can be effective and there’s many individuals and many patients worldwide that benefit tremendously from medications and other forms of treatment.

“Exercise can be used in addition to those treatments as a first line form of care.”

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