Exercise is an incredible medicine. It can lower blood pressure, prevent diabetes, and alleviate the debilitating symptoms of chronic depression and anxiety. It’s even been shown to promote better skin health, improve eyesight, and ward off the aging process of cells.
On the other hand, not exercising can lead to mood disorders, arthritis - and not surprisingly - obesity and cardiovascular disease. The CDC estimates that inadequate exercise accounts for 11% of total annual healthcare costs in the United States - that’s just over $130 billion each year. One recent study led by cardiologists at the Cleveland Clinic suggests that a sedentary lifestyle is worse for your health than smoking, diabetes, or heart disease.
In our own research, we’ve found that exercise can significantly improve brain health, even in perfectly healthy young adults. Neurologists from Harvard Medical School have reached similar conclusions, demonstrating that the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex have greater volume in people who exercise regularly. These areas of the brain are primarily responsible for complex decision making, social behavior, and declarative memory. (The Speed, Focus, and Fatigue metrics are sensitive to the integrity of the prefrontal cortex).
Exercise can even help injured athletes recover from concussions faster. Researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo found that athletes who engaged in moderate aerobic activity were free of post-concussion symptoms sooner than a sedentary control group. The CDC now recommends that children who have sustained a concussion resume moderate physical activity as soon as 2-3 days after sustaining a brain injury.
It’s clear that exercise is good for the body and the mind, even for people recovering from a brain injury (and even if that brain injury occurred during exercise).
However, a new study from published in Lancet Psychiatry has found that very specific types of exercise are associated with better mental health. The authors also suggest that engaging in particular physical activities could significantly reduce an individual’s mental health burden - the number of days each month that they reported experiencing poor mental health.
The cross-sectional study examined self-reported data from more than 1.2 million individuals in the United States above the age of 18. People who did not exercise reported nearly twice as many poor mental health days over a one month period than those who engaged in regular physical activity. While all types of exercise were associated with reductions in mental health burden, popular team sports - like soccer, basketball, and softball - had the greatest effect. Cycling came in a close second, followed by general aerobic and gym activities.
From these results, it appears that the social element of a sport plays a key role in the mental health benefits of exercise. In team sports, players must communicate well and work together to succeed. Cycling can be an individual pursuit, but many cyclists participate in large group rides that foster conversation and comraderie. Entering a crowded gym might be overwhelming or frustrating when all the equipment is occupied, but navigating the sweaty hoards to find an open machine often requires a polite inquiry and a friendly smile.
One key thing to note about this study is that increases in the duration and frequency of exercise did not necessarily correlate with improved mental health. Workouts of about 45 minutes, performed 3-5 times each week, were associated with the fewest days of poor mental health.
Starting a new exercise program can be intimidating. Fortunately, you don’t have to become an Ironman triathlete or a tractor-pulling CrossFit addict to reap the benefits of a workout.
The best way is to just show up. Don’t start with lofty goals to run 20 miles or deadlift twice your bodyweight right away - falling short of these aspirations will only lead to self-doubt and failure. Instead, show up to the local Y, join a pickup game, and see if your hook shot is still unblockable; walk into a gym (one that you’ve joined, of course) and jump on the first set of available weights; get on your bike and explore town, zipping through turns like you’re a rebellious kid again, and strike up a conversation with any other two-wheeled commuters you run into (figuratively, that is); call up an old friend and ask them to join you for an afternoon stroll. Exercise doesn’t have to be structured or exhausting. And when it’s done right your mind, body, and brain will thank you.