Physical exercise 3 to 5 times per week for between 30 and 60 minutes each time improves self-reported mental health, whereas exercising for more than 23 days a month or for between 90 minutes and 3 hours per session may worsen mental health burden, according to a cross-sectional study published in Lancet Psychiatry.

Researchers examined data from the 2011, 2013, and 2015 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Behavioral Risk Factors Surveillance System survey (n=1,237,194) on adults. The self-reported mental health of people in the data set who reported exercising was compared with that of those who did not. For this measure, the researchers used answers from a question asking people about the number of days in the past month in which their mental health (stress, depression, and problems with emotions) was not good.

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

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Compared with people who did not exercise, people who did exercise reported 1.49 (43.2%) fewer days of poor mental health in the past 30 days (W=7.42×1010; P <2.2×10–16). Overall, all forms of exercise were associated with a lower self-reported mental health burden, with a minimum reduction of 11.8% and maximum reduction of 22.3%, compared with not exercising (P <2.2×10–16). The lowest mental health burdens were associated with participation in popular team sports (22.3% lower), cycling (21.6% lower), and aerobic and gym activities (20.1% lower).

Exercise durations of 45 minutes and exercise frequencies of 3 to 5 times per week were strongly associated with lower mental health burden. Only small reductions in mental health burden were observed for people who exercised >90 minutes per session. Worse mental health burden was observed for exercise durations of >3 hours compared with either 45 minutes or no exercise.

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Limitations of the study included its cross-sectional design and reliance on self-reports of mental health burden, as well as the inclusion of participants’ primary exercise alone in the analysis.

The data from this study indicate “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 authors’ disclosures.


Chekroud SR, Gueorguieva R, Zheutlin AB, et al. Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1·2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: a cross-sectional study. Lancet Psychiatry. 2018;5(9):739-746.