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2 types of exercise can boost mental health

Why exercise can be a "powerful tool."

Klaus Vedfelt

Exercise does a lot more than make you sweat. It builds muscle, strengthens bones, supports a healthy heart, and lengthens lifespan.

Some research on working out suggests it can prevent 35 different chronic conditions, ranging from type 2 diabetes to cancer.

Liam Norris

Decades of research also show exercise is a vital tool to manage mental health. Working out regularly can create lasting positive changes in the brain, lowering anxiety, depression, and stress levels.

In a time of stress and uncertainty, breaking a sweat and moving more can help you survive with your mental health intact.

Here’s what the latest science says about how exercise can manage mental health.

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In a 2020 study in mice, researchers discovered exercise actually increases the brain’s resilience to stress. While exercise doesn’t appear to shape immediate feelings of stress, it helps with long-term coping.

"Not exercising at all and then suddenly going for a hard 10 mile run just before a stressful event isn’t as helpful as regularly jogging three miles several days a week over several months."

— Study co-authors David Weinshenker and Rachel Tillage, to Inverse.

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Exercise can also improve people's quality of life while reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, suggests a research review published in September 2020.

The benefits were higher in younger patients and patients who had higher depression symptoms before starting exercise therapy.

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In another study of 66 adults with major depression, scientists found eight weeks of moderate aerobic exercise was enough to alleviate mental health symptoms by about 55 percent. Meanwhile, light-intensity stretching reduced symptoms by 31 percent over the same period of time.

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In a 2019 study researchers found that, for people who had experienced depression and who engaged in at least four hours of activity a week, engaging in just 35 minutes extra activity every day lowered the odds of developing a new episode of depression by 17 percent.

“Because past depression is a strong predictor of later depression, this gives us even more evidence that physical activity may be a powerful tool for beating the odds against future depression."

— Study co-author and postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, Karmel Choi, to Inverse.

How much and what type of exercise is best for strengthening mental health?

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More scientific studies in humans are needed to pin down that answer exactly but, for now, scientists say two categories are key: Aerobic exercise and routine exercise.

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1. Aerobic exercise: walking, running, biking, and swimming probably have a greater effect on stress resilience and mental health than non-aerobic exercise like weight lifting, experts say.

2. Regular, routine exercise: Exercise probably needs to be completed a few times a week to get the desired benefits. Cramming in a HIIT workout or long run during a stressful period or bout of anxiety isn't likely to be as helpful as regularly hiking or hitting the elliptical.

In a 2018 study, the association between exercise and better mental health was the strongest for people who exercised 60 to 90 minutes three to five times a week, but even people who engaged in mild exercises, like walking for 45 minutes three times a week, saw benefits.

“It’s not a case where you need to go out and do crazy resistance training or body sculpting or intense workouts. It seems like these benefits were happening just from relatively low amounts of regular exercise.”

— Psychiatrist Adam Chekroud at Yale University, to Inverse.

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Getting the mental health benefits of exercise doesn't require a fancy gym membership, daily HIIT sessions, or killing yourself in the gym.

Even a little movement, on a regular basis, can help protect mental health.

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