The role of exercise and physical activity in mental health

Move Your Health: A review of the scientific evidence on the role exercise and physical activity on mental health

This Report identified 1444 articles including qualitative and correlational studies, systematic reviews and meta-analyses, case studies and theoretical papers, and clinical trials. These have been categorized by type of exercise, type of mental health condition or outcome, numbers and types of studies in each category, and whether results were statistically significant or not.

Key Conclusions:

Do Exercise and Physical Activity Benefit Mental Health?

  • Existing scientific research overwhelmingly indicates that exercise and physical activity benefit mental health.
  • 89% of all published peer-reviewed research between 1990 and 2020 found a positive, statistically significant relationship between exercise/physical activity and mental health.
  • In general, the optimal type, intensity, and duration of exercise remain unclear, although several conclusions about specific types of exercise can be made, detailed below.

How Much Exercise and How Often?

  • Overall, three to five 30-45-minute moderate to vigorous exercise sessions per week appear to deliver optimal mental health benefits
  • High-frequency exercise (3-5 times per week) is better for reducing depressive symptoms than low-frequency exercise (1 time per week)
  • More exercise is not always better. There appears to be a U-shaped curve, in which people who engage in moderate to vigorous exercise 3-5 times per week show better mental health than those who exercise under three or over five times per week.

What Type of Exercise?

  • High-intensity exercise regimens are generally more effective than low-intensity regimens
  • Combining or alternating strength/resistance training with cardiovascular/aerobic exercise shows stronger benefits on mental health outcomes than either one alone.
  • Mindfulness-based activities like yoga and tai chi, though they can be lower intensity forms of movement, deliver more mental health benefits than walking.
  • Team sports, cycling, and aerobic or gym exercise are the top three forms of exercise associated with over 20% fewer “poor mental health” days per month

What Mental Health Outcomes are Most Impacted by Exercise?

  • Exercise is strongly associated with general mental and emotional well-being including reduced stress, and improved mood and quality of life.
  • Evidence supports cardiovascular/aerobic exercise for reducing depression, and reducing symptoms in people with anxiety disorders
  • Yoga and other mindful exercises such as Tai Chi and Qigong show strong evidence for reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.