Almost everyone will agree that the present era is one of the most stressful in memory. Surveys report people worldwide are suffering from stomach-churning worries about almost every aspect of daily life: Health, politics, money, family, career opportunities, personal safety, and so on.
One tool you can use to protect mental health is exercise. We’ve known for years that exercise has a mood-boosting effect, and several recently published studies show it can reduce depression and anxiety, while supporting overall mental health.
Exercise = Better Mental Health
A pre-coronavirus study published in 2018 set out to quantify the impact of regular workouts on mental health. Researchers analyzed data from more than 1.2 million Americans and found that participants who exercised regularly had significantly better mental health compared to those who weren’t particularly active.
All exercise types were associated with improved mental health. Team sports and mindful exercises, such as yoga and tai chi, conveyed the greatest positive effect. Of course, during the era of social distancing, sport options are limited but this study showed that cycling, aerobic exercise, and weight training were all associated with a 20 percent reduction in poor mental health.
Researchers also found that the benefit of exercise on mental health was larger than other factors such as income. For example, physically active people felt just as good as those who are inactive but who earn about $25,000 more a year.
Another key finding was that more exercise is not always better. The relationship between physical activity and mental wellness follows a U-shaped pattern where little to none is just as bad as excessive exercise. This study found that mental health peaked with 3 to 5 training sessions a week lasting at least 45 minutes each. Mental health benefits stalled at 90 minutes of exercise a day. More than 90 minutes was detrimental and individuals who exercised for longer than three hours a day suffered worse mental health than those who were sedentary.
A second study published in response to the coronavirus crisis looked at the relationship between mental health and physical activity in Chinese college students during the lockdown. Researchers acknowledged the powerful negative effect social isolation has had on mental wellness and set out to determine the protective role of exercise. The 66 participants responded to surveys every two weeks for six weeks, recording their activity, sleep quality, and mental health. Results showed that 85 percent reported worries about the health crisis and 42 percent reported poor sleep, indicating the profound impact of the COVID-19 lockdown.
On the upside, physical activity was consistently associated with lower reports of depression, aggression, and negative emotions. Similar to the previous study, the authors identified a dose-response curve between physical activity and negative emotion, with both too little and too much exercise harming mental outlook.
The “sweet spot” for physical activity corresponded to 108 minutes of light, 80 minutes of moderate, or 45 minutes of physical activity every day—numbers that are higher than those observed in previous studies. The authors suggest that during this difficult time, people need more physical activity to offset the psychological burden and negative emotions caused by the disease outbreak and social distancing.
This is important because some reports indicate an increase in sedentary time since the onset of the health crisis. And with the shutdown of gyms, many people have found it difficult to get both the quality and quantity of exercise they need for both mental and physical wellness.
How To Ensure Mental Health Benefits of Exercise?
The first step is to establish a workout routine. The coronavirus has disrupted many schedules, which makes planning time to exercise all the more important. Setting aside daily time to get your workout in will decrease the chance that you will tell yourself, “If I miss it, it won’t matter.” Understand that the benefits of exercise appear when you string together a series of workouts in which you show up and put in the work. When you think of it this way, you realize that EVERY workout matters.
Incorporate Strength Work
With the closing of gyms, a lot of people gave up on strength training altogether. For a few weeks, this is not the end of the world. The body holds on to muscle and strength gains relatively well despite a short period of inactivity. But things go downhill as the months go by. Studies show significant loss of strength, muscle, and mobility when people discontinue training for 6 months or more.
Now’s the time to get back after it, whether in the gym or at home with a combination of body weight, suspension training, and dumbbells/kettlebells. Strength training has the added benefit of helping to regulate the fight-or-flight response so that your body is better able to handle stress and high cortisol.
Be Smart About Conditioning
The last thing you want to do is kill yourself with intense, high-volume cardio because this will send your body’s stress response into overdrive and may lead you to dread your workouts. Low intensity (walking) or low volume (interval training) are two great solutions that don’t overly stress your body but will improve mood due to an increase in beta endorphins. For example, you could try the Wingate protocol on a bike or track: Do four 30-second sprint repeats with 4 minutes active (walking or easy cycling) rest. Or try one of the interval workouts we put together that you can do outside.
Load Up On Mind-Body Exercise
Mind-body exercise, including yoga, tai chi, and martial arts, have all been shown to improve mental outlook, while lowering anxiety. Studies show that mindful activities that help you connect with your body stimulate the rest-and-digest mode of the parasympathetic nervous system. They have also been shown to lower cortisol and offset inflammation, both of which are associated with a worse mental outlook when elevated.