Building strong, lean muscles and a healthy heart is just the beginning—regular movement offers a wealth of “above-the-neck” benefits, too. It’s been linked to everything from boosting brain power and helping control addiction to inspiring creativity and promoting happiness. So how do you get the most mental benefit from your workouts?
Moderation is key
A study of 1.2 million U.S. adults showed that those who worked out for shorter sessions (around 45 minutes) enjoyed better mental health than those who sweat it out during marathon workouts. The research also showed that those who work out three to five days a week had a bigger reduction in poor mental health days than those who didn’t work out at all, or those who worked out more than five times a week. This led to the researchers recommending a sweet spot of between two and six hours of movement a week.
Any movement is good, but some types are better than others
Researchers identified that some types of workouts are superior when it comes to providing mental health benefits. Team sports seem to be the winner, followed by cycle-based fitness and then aerobic-based workouts at the gym. These top three suggest that when it comes to mental health benefits, group-based activities are preferable. Yoga-based movement is also highly regarded as a great mood booster, and a recent study indicates that yoga, specifically the mindful breathing associated with it, can be used to ease the symptoms of depression.
Lift weights, but don’t worry about how heavy the weights are
A recent analysis of clinical strength training trials highlighted that strength training is a valuable way to alleviate depression symptoms—it can have a similar effect to antidepressant medications or psychotherapy. Kinesiologist Jacob Meyer, Ph.D., explains that it doesn’t seem to matter whether people actually improve their strength. After a program of resistance training, they still had lower symptoms of depression. “You would think—in particular if it’s a specific muscle-building physiological change that drove the antidepressive effects—that increased strength would have to happen for someone’s depressive symptoms to go down. But that didn’t seem to be the case,” he says. Meyer suspects that there’s a real feel-good factor associated with strength training.
Just like all the muscles in your body, your brain needs variety
Neurological expert Maurice Curtis, Ph.D., explains that the brain is the only organ you can’t overtax and that you’re not going to have a meltdown if you start challenging your gray matter by introducing new ways of moving. If you just do the same thing every day, you’ll probably get good at that, but there will be aspects of life you’re just not experiencing. A healthy brain needs variety to really thrive!
Exercising your mind is good, too
Meyer explains that increased mindfulness can lead you to make choices that lead to more physical activity. Mindfulness meditation also can foster a more accurate perception of your level of physical activity. Learn more about it here.
Does movement really improve brain power?
Research suggests regular aerobic exercise can boost the size of the hippocampus, the core of the brain’s learning and memory systems. Curtis explains that when you work out, your body releases a lot of good things, including brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is good for the health of brain cells. The idea is that when you work out, you’re much more likely to cause the brain to make new brain cells. This is backed up by a German study that showed how cycling while learning a foreign language helped people remember new words better.
This post originally appeared on LesMills.com.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Les Mills