When it comes to improving your mental health or even just lifting your mood, exercise always seems to be at the top of everyone's advice list. Take it from Elle Woods: exercise gives you endorphins, endorphins make you happy, and happy people don't kill their husbands.
Of course, mental health is multifaceted and there's no quick fix, but how much exercise do you actually need to impact your mental health?
Depending on who you listen to, it varies. Several studies have looked into this, with different results. A 2012 study looking at a little over 7,000 adults suggested that the sweet spot was somewhere between two and a half to seven and a half hours of exercise per week, while a report from earlier this year that looked at several other studies concluded that just ten minutes of working out per week is enough to make you happier.
That's a pretty big difference, and while the amount of exercise you need to impact your mood will vary from person to person, Adam Chekroud, PhD, cofounder of mental health benefits start-up Spring Health, and lead author of the study, says that there just might be an average amount that works for most of us.
"People who exercised definitely had fewer days of bad mental health than those who don’t, even when we match them with other things that might matter, like age, gender, and income," he says.
For the study, Dr. Chekroud and his fellow researchers looked at data from over a million adults in the U.S. who took the Behavioural Risk Factor Surveillance System survey in 2011, 2013, and 2015. The survey included questions about participants' physical health, mental health, and health behaviors (like exercise), though it didn't take mental health disorders other than depression into account.
People who exercised definitely had fewer days of bad mental health than those who don’t.
Adam Chekroud, PhD
Chekroud says that researchers gauged participants' "bad mental health days" by asking them to estimate the number of days in the past month in which they'd say that their mental health wasn't "good" (considering factors like stress, depression and emotional problems). They were also asked about how often they exercised in the past month, as well as how many times a week or month they exercised and for how long.
Compared to people who didn't exercise, those who did work out had, on average, one and a half fewer bad mental health days. And while all forms of exercise had their benefits, Dr. Chekroud says that team sports were associated with the most benefits.
"There are a number of biological reasons [exercise helps mental health], it stimulates certain brain patterns and pathways that might also be related to disorders like depression," Dr. Chekroud says. "But there are a bunch of different ways socially it might help, I'm not surprised that team sports was the most beneficial. It makes sense that you get the biological benefit of exercising as well as the social benefits of interacting with people and playing as a team."
While it might be tempting to think that the more you work out, the better, but researchers said that exercising for more than three hours a day was actually associated with worse mental health than not exercising at all. They theorized that people doing extreme amounts of exercise might have obsessive characteristics that could put them at greater risk of poor mental health.
And at the other end of the spectrum, Dr. Chekroud says that people who exercised less often than the average three to five times per week for 45 minutes might "not be giving their body enough of a kick to give it the benefits of exercise."
Still, not everyone has time or the ability to work out often, and that doesn't necessarily mean that their mental health will suffer for it. The amount of exercise that works for you will vary, and so will the type of exercise.
Deborah Serani, PsyD, a psychologist in Smithtown, NY, says that she usually advises her patients to do any exercise that gets their heart rates up.
"Generally, ten to fifteen minutes of aerobic activity is enough to get your heart going and activate feel good hormones like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin," she says.
And as Debra Kissen, PhD, a member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), says, while exercise isn't the "full solution" for any mental health problems, it's definitely an important tool for your health — and you don't have to do anything intensive like a bootcamp for it to "work."
"Even just walking or doing household chores gave a benefit as opposed to not exercising," Dr. Chekroud says. "We don’t have to all go for a 90-minute bike ride to get these benefits, and every little bit helps."