If you’ve ever finished a yoga class, weights session, or run feeling ready to take on the world, you already know that working out your body can make your mind feel good too. “Exercise is important for mental health, especially depression, because it helps boost production of neurotransmitters like serotonin in the brain, which regulate how we feel,” explains psychiatrist Dr. Reshmi Saranga, MD, founder of Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry in Apex, NC. Now, a recent study published in The Lancet Psychiatry Journal has put numbers on how much exercise is best in order to get those psychological benefits — and it’s good news even if you’re not a gym fan.

Happy women exercising

The Exercise Sweet Spot

The researchers looked at data from over 1.2 million adults in the US from 2011, 2013, and 2015. They examined the daily state of each person’s mental health, as well as several factors about their workout routines: exercise type, duration, frequency, and intensity. The results showed that those who exercised had 1.49 fewer self-reported “poor mental health” days than those who did not, even when adjusting for physical and socioeconomic factors. All types of exercise were shown to be beneficial, with team sports, cycling, and gym and aerobic activities having the most positive impact on mental health. The most effective duration and frequency was 45 minutes, three to five times per week.

Dr. Adam Chekroud, PhD is the study’s lead author and co-founder and chief scientist of Spring Health, an online platform based in New York that’s designed to improve mental health in the workplace. Of the results, he says, “It was encouraging to see that relatively accessible exercises were associated with better mental health — things like walking three times a week. A lot of previous research was focusing on quite demanding kinds of exercise, like resistance training, which might not be accessible to a large portion of the population.”

Don’t Overdo It

One of the most surprising findings, Chekroud says, was that “the concept of ‘more exercise is better’ didn’t really hold up: It seemed like people who exercised for a very long duration, or over 22 times per month, were having more days of bad mental health than people who didn’t exercise.”

If you’re feeling guilty or anxious for skipping the gym, or you’re canceling social engagements to go, you may need to readjust your mindset on what exercise means to you. Alyssa Lavy, MS, RD, CDN, Connecticut-based dietician and owner of Alyssa Lavy Nutrition & Wellness LLC, says, “Something I often see in my field is people using exercise as a means to negate foods they’ve eaten, or to support other unhealthy behaviors. When exercise begins to provoke anxiety or stress, it may be worthwhile reevaluating why you are engaging in that particular activity, how often, and how this makes you feel.”

Exercise Can Supplement Treatments For Depression

As the BBC reported, the study found that exercise had a more noticeable impact for people who had been diagnosed with depression. Those with depression who worked out reported seven days of poor mental health a month, compared to 11 for those with depression who didn’t exercise. Chekroud says this confirms findings from other studies. “There is a lot of literature suggesting that exercise can help with depression,” he notes. “For example, a clinical trial by Dr. Madhukar Trivedi showed that exercise in combination with antidepressants was more effective than just antidepressants alone.” However, as anyone with depression knows, you can’t simply run or yoga your way out of it. Chekroud confirms, “I would definitely say it is a good idea to add exercise onto other treatments like psychotherapy or medications, but I would not suggest using exercise as a replacement for known evidence-based treatments.”

What Exercise Is Best?

Now that you don’t need to spend all your free time working out to feel good, where do you start? Rob Jackson, London-based certified personal trainer who primarily works with office workers who are getting into fitness after long breaks or for the first time, says that figuring out what works for you is personal. “Think about your history of sports and exercising. If you’ve never played sports, it’s best to start easy and build up,” he advises. “It’s not good for your mental health if you feel inadequate or unfit because you can’t perform certain movements. Choose a sport or exercise you feel comfortable doing, and at an intensity or pace you can manage.”

Even if you have limited mobility, a little goes a long way. Saranga explains, “For people who can’t exercise, I highly recommend trying aquatic activities. Being in the water works many parts of the body and can get the heart rate up, which is beneficial for mental health. If mobility is an issue, even doing simple exercises while seated can be good too.”

Most important for mental health is choosing something that makes you happy. “The best exercise or activity is the one that you enjoy doing,” Lavy says. “Trying a variety is a good way to determine how you feel during and after — and you may surprise yourself! I personally enjoy yoga and barre, as I find these activities connect my mind and body, and make me feel a sense of gratitude for what my body can do. An exercise regimen should be personalized, and, especially if you’re trying to get mental health benefits, should be something that actually makes you feel good.” So do something you love, and do it a few times a week. We’re feeling better already.

What’s your favorite feel-good exercise? Share it with us @BritandCo.

(Photo via Getty)