It can be hard to get an inactive person to begin exercising. But just 15 to 20 minutes a week can be a big boost for people with mental health problems. (Photo: Colourbox)

Light exercise improves mental health

Just 15 to 20 minutes of training a few times a week has a big impact on mental health. In fact it does more than pills.

Countless studies have compared people who exercise a lot to people who do close to nothing.

Our bodies and minds haven’t evolved in line with our new opportunities in the modern world for sitting still day and night. Research offers solid evidence that physical training is beneficial to mental health, but this research generally involves highly contrasting comparisons.

Now scientists at Gothenburg University have given this a new twist.  They have studied how the mental health of those of us who are indolent improves with just a little bit of exercise. 

“Plenty of previous research has compared physically active with physically inactive people. Our study is unique because we focused on the same people over a long period.”

Magnus Lindwall insists it’s never too late to start exercising. (Photo: Gothenburg University)

“We’ve measured how changes in their activity levels affects their mental health,” says Magnus Lindwall, a researcher in psychology at Gothenburg University.

Good news for couch potatoes

Lindwall and his colleagues kept tabs on 3,717 individuals from 2004 to 2010.

The study brings good tidings to those of us for whom the concept of exercise involves hunting for the remote control.

What you’ve done earlier in life doesn’t appear to be very important. What’s important is what you do now.

The level is inessential

A bonus item for many is that the level of your work-outs also appears to be of little importance. The essential thing is to do something new.

Making a change itself has a big impact.

“Even if you are well along in years and have never exercised in your life, you can still get a big effect by beginning with light, easy training a few times a week,” says Lindwall.

The researchers saw that those who altered their lifestyles were less prone to depression. They also suffered less anxiety. Thirdly, they were less vulnerable to burnout. 

Likewise, those who have been physically active and became inactive ran a higher risk of mental illness.

“So it’s never too late to start working out. But it’s always too soon to quit,” Lindwall said.

No need to run marathons

Lindwall makes it sound pretty easy.

“We are talking about light exercise, such as walking with ski poles or quick walks lasting 15-20 minutes.”

But it should be several times a week. Frequency is actually more important than intensity, Lindwall and his colleagues say.

“It’s better to take short walks several times a week that to train hard for 60 minutes once a week,” he said.

Translated by: Glenn Ostling

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