Want To Improve Your Mental Health? A Huge New Study Found This One Thing Is 1.5X More Important Than Therapy or Medication

Balance is key—but the research shows you shouldn't skip this.

According to the CDC, 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience some form of mental illness in a given year, and 50 percent of adults will receive a mental illness or disorder diagnosis at some point during their lives.

Over the last several years (particularly during the peak of the pandemic), discussions about mental health have moved to the forefront of conversations, which is a huge step—people finally realize how important our mental health is to our overall well-being.

Medication and therapy are two well-studied tools people use to improve mental health, and both are known to be effective. But a new study is shining a light on the importance of physical activity when it comes to managing mental health.

In fact, researchers from the University of South Australia found that physical activity is 1.5 times more helpful than therapy or leading medications for reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety and distress.

"Exercise often goes overlooked as a potential treatment for anxiety or depression," says Dr. Scott Krakower, DO, a psychiatrist with Northwell Health and avid runner. "Exercise and physical activity can be effective in treating depression."

Here's what experts want you to know about the study and how to start an exercise routine that's best for your mental health.

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About the Study

The new British Sports Medicine Journal study, published online on Feb. 16, is the most comprehensive to date. It's a review, meaning it looked at a ton of previous research—97 reviews, 1,039 trials and 128,119 participants.

Researchers found that 12 weeks of physical activity had medium effects on depression, anxiety and psychological distress compared to typical treatments (counseling and pharmaceuticals). Specific populations saw the most benefits:

  • People with depression

  • People with HIV

  • People with kidney disease

  • Pregnant people

  • Postpartum people

  • Healthy individuals

Higher-intensity workouts yielded the biggest mental health boosts. But the longer the workout activity, the fewer benefits people saw.

The TL;DR version: "The main takeaway is that by following a program that lasts 12 weeks or less, those struggling with mental disorders such as anxiety and depression can see noticeable differences in their symptoms," says Megan Hellman, MA, CPT, a performance manager at Future, an app that connects people with fitness coaches.

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Why Exercise Boosts Mental Health

Even if your workout burned at the moment, you likely feel a surge of happiness after completing it. That rush is thanks to feel-good hormones known as endorphins.

"Exercise alters the brain by releasing endorphins and a mix of natural brain chemicals that can enhance your sense of well-being," says Hellman.

And happiness may not be the only emotion you experience long after your post-workout stretch. "Following an exercise program can also increase feelings of control, self-confidence and body positivity which all impact mental health," Hellman says.

There may even be strength in numbers."If you are working with a coach or taking group classes, exercise can also offer an outside support system and feeling of belonging," Hellman says.

It's more than endorphins and social support, though. Working out can be a distraction from life.

"It can refocus our attention away from thoughts that may contribute to our mental health because, during intense bouts of exercise, we need to stay focused on the task at hand in order to complete it," says Dr. Lindsey C. Blom, EdD, CMPC, the former president of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) and current chairperson of Ball State University's School of Kinesiology.

Though all physical activity helped, the higher the intensity, the greater the benefits. But researchers didn't explore why. Longer duration workouts also saw a decrease in benefits, another point authors didn't study. But Dr. Blom has a hypothesis.

"Sometimes longer, slower bouts of exercise allow ‘thinking’ time, which may not be helpful," Dr. Blom says. "Additionally, more intense bouts may also lead to a feeling of accomplishment and control, which can assist with mental health benefits."

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How to Work Out for Your Mental Health

Sometimes, depression and anxiety can make moving a challenge. Experts shared tips for getting started slowly and making exercise fun.

Focus on you

Dr. Blom says the Internet and people in your life may be full of advice and ideas on the "best workout." But your exercise and mental health journeys are about you. Just because your friend swears by a Peloton doesn't mean you need one.

"Select something that works for them regardless of the specific parameters," Dr. Blom says.

Give yourself grace. You won't magically step out the door and turn into Usain Bolt. You probably never will—sorry—but working out for mental health isn't about hitting specific performance metrics, especially not at first.

"Work to reduce barriers. Focus on showing up as the goal first before worrying about skills, time, speed and performance," Dr. Blom says.

Be patient

Dr. Krakower says getting into a routine can help make exercise a mainstay in your life. However, be patient with yourself.

"It takes time to change behavior, so I recommend allowing three weeks of the new behavior before expecting to consider it part of the routine," says Dr. Blom.

Exercises experts love

The endless possibilities for workouts can feel overwhelming, especially if you're experiencing mental health struggles. Experts shared their favorites.

"Easy HIIT exercises to try are jumping jacks, squat jumps and mountain climbers," says Hellman. "I recommend doing these in a TABATA format, which is performing eight rounds of each exercise for 20 seconds on and 10 seconds off. Take one minute off in between. Then, move on to the next move."

Ready for more of a challenge? Add some weight."Kettlebells are a great addition to the workout," Dr. Krakower says.

Dr. Blom suggests looking into workout classes for the added social benefits but advises patients to speak to their doctors before starting any new workout programs.

Medication and Therapy Still May Help You

This study had a large sample size and showed how helpful exercise could improve mental health. But Dr. Krakower recommends everyone have an open mind when starting mental health treatment.

"It is important to find something that works for you," he says. "This generalized study may not pertain specifically to one person. Medication can also be quite effective when treating depression and anxiety."

Talk to your doctor to begin mapping out the best plan for you.