Moderate exercise improves mental health, but over-exercise can make it worse



Exercising 3 to 5 times a week for 30 to 60 minutes each time improves self-reported mental health, while exercising for more than 23 days per month or between 90 minutes and 3 hours per session can increase the burden of mental health, according to a cross-sectional study published in Lancet Psychiatry.

Researchers reviewed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey of 2011, 2013, and 2015 (n = 1,237,194) of adults. The self-reported mental health of people in the data set who reported exercising was compared to that of those who did not. For this measure, the researchers used responses to a question asking people the number of days in the past month that their mental health (stress, depression, and emotional issues) was not good.

People in the dataset were matched on the basis of age, race, sex, marital status, income, education level, body mass index category , self-reported physical health and a previous diagnosis of depression. The effects of the type, duration, frequency and intensity of exercise on mental health burden were also assessed.

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Compared with people who did not exercise, people who exercised reported 1.49 (43.2%) fewer days of poor mental health in the past 30 days (W= 7.42 × 10ten; P –16). Overall, all forms of exercise were associated with a lower self-reported mental health burden, with a minimum reduction of 11.8% and a maximum reduction of 22.3%, compared with not doing exercise (P –16). The lowest mental health loads were associated with participation in popular team sports (22.3% lower), cycling (21.6% lower), and aerobic and gym activities (20 , 1% less).

Exercise times of 45 minutes and exercise frequencies of 3-5 times per week were strongly associated with a lower mental health load. Only small reductions in mental health burden were seen in people who exercised more than 90 minutes per session. A more severe mental health burden was observed for exercise times> 3 hours compared to 45 minutes or no exercise.

Limitations of the study included its cross-sectional design and use of self-rated mental health burden, as well as the inclusion of participants’ main exercise only in the analysis.

Data from this study indicates “that all exercise groups, including social and non-social forms, were associated with lower mental health burden.”

Disclosure: Several study authors declared affiliations with the pharmaceutical industry. Please see the original reference for a full list of author disclosures.


Chekroud SR, Gueorguieva R, Zheutlin AB, et al. Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1.2 million people in the USA between 2011 and 2015: a cross-sectional study. Lancet Psychiatry. 2018; 5 (9): 739-746.


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