Health

Exercise is great for mental health, but how much is too much?

Key Takeaways

  • Intense workouts may be detrimental to mental health, new research suggests.
  • Memory can be affected by more intense exercise.
  • Exercise has many benefits, but there is no one-size-fits-all approach—a personalized exercise routine is best.

It’s common knowledge that exercise has many psychological benefits, but how much? A recent study suggests that intense exercise can be detrimental to mental health and memory.

Researchers at Dartmouth University have found that, while exercise can have positive effects on mental health, not all forms and intensities of exercise are equally effective.

They asked 113 Fitbit users to take a series of memory tests and answer questions about their mental health, as well as share exercise data from the previous year.

Understanding research

Although researchers expected that high levels of activity would correlate with improved mental health and memory performance, the results were not so simple.

In fact, those exercising at a lower intensity did better on some memory tests, while those exercising at a higher intensity did better on others. In terms of mental health, those exercising at higher intensities reported higher levels of stress, while those exercising at lower intensities reported lower levels of anxiety and depression.

Whereas previous research in this area has focused on exercise and memory in the short term, this study looked at the effects of exercise on memory in the long term. The data the researchers focused on included daily step count, average heart rate and time spent exercising in different ‘heart rate zones’.

Exercise and memory

Researchers have also seen connections between mental health and memory. Participants who reported anxiety or depression generally performed better on spatial and associative memory tasks, memory types related to location, and the ability to remember connections between concepts or other memories, respectively.

In comparison, participants reporting bipolar disorder performed better on episodic memory tasks — the type of memory related to autobiographical events, such as what you did yesterday or last weekend. Participants who reported high-stress levels performed poorly on associative memory tasks.

“When it comes to physical activity, memory and mental health, there are really complex dynamics at play that can’t be summed up in single sentences like ‘walking improves your memory’ or ‘stress damages your memory,'” said lead author Jeremy Manning, “Instead, specific forms of physical activity and specific aspects of mental health seem to affect each aspect of memory differently,” said Dartmouth University assistant professor of psychology and brain science, in a press release.

Smriti Joshi, Chief Psychologist at Waisa

You don’t have to push yourself or ‘feel the burn’ to benefit from exercise for physical or mental well-being.

— Smriti Joshi, Chief Psychologist at Waysa

In comparison, participants who reported bipolar disorder performed better on episodic memory tasks — the type of memory related to autobiographical events, such as what you did yesterday or last weekend. Participants who reported higher stress levels tended to do worse on associative memory tasks.

“When it comes to physical activity, memory and mental health, there are really complex dynamics at play that can’t be summed up in single sentences like ‘walking improves your memory’ or ‘stress damages your memory,'” said lead author Jeremy Manning, assistant professor of psychology and brain science at Dartmouth University, in a press release.

“Instead, specific forms of physical activity and specific aspects of mental health seem to affect each aspect of memory differently,” Manning said.

Take these results with a grain of salt

Of course, exercise brings many mental health benefits. Running reduces the risk of depression, for example.

Elena Toroni, PhD, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of the Chelsea Psychology Clinic comments, “When you exercise, your body releases feel-good hormones, endorphins and serotonin, which give you a natural energy boost and promote positive feelings. body. Your body and mind also become better at handling the stress hormone, cortisol.

She explains that people often find that exercise is a good release of pent-up energy, helping to break their cyclical thoughts and give them a clear head, and that exercise can also boost self-esteem: “Increasing energy can help you feel stronger about yourself. feel and feel more confident to face any challenge in your life.”

Can we exercise too much?

“For physical or mental well-being, you don’t have to push yourself or ‘feel the burn’ to benefit from exercise,” says Smriti Joshi, chief psychologist at Wysa.

He explains that there are all kinds of factors that can influence decisions on the type of exercise we do, from our age to our general health.

Daniela Bivid, Ph.D

While exposing yourself to some physical stress during exercise is a good thing, prolonged high-intensity activity can actually put our nervous system in ‘fight-or-flight’ mode.

– Daniela Bivid, Ph.D

“What’s important is to try and be a little more physically active than you are now, and that could mean just stretching or going for a regular walk with a friend or loved one. You can choose to build it up and increase the duration or make it more varied and fun. You can,” he says.

“You don’t have to exercise rigorously every day to reap the benefits of exercise,” says Daniela Beivid, Ph.D., director of content, research and UX at Holy Health. “Even more accessible movement such as walking or gardening improves mood. Some of the possible mechanisms for this relationship include reduced inflammation, better regulation of the stress response, and increased production of certain neurotransmitters such as serotonin.”

Excessive exercise can also be harmful – exercise addiction is a very real problem, and as Joshi explains it can lead to physical complications such as injuries, fractures and amenorrhea, the absence of menstruation.

Personalized exercise is best

Although the results are interesting and raise several questions, the study had limitations. For example, the research does not answer whether different types of exercise actively alter memory and mental health, or whether people who participate in certain types of exercise may have similar memory or mental health profiles.

For example, those who exercised at a higher intensity reported higher levels of stress than individuals who attempted to release more energy through higher-intensity exercise.

Manning added that additional research could be beneficial: “For example, specific exercise regimens could be designed to help students prepare for a test or reduce their symptoms of depression, improving their cognitive performance and mental health.”

“Study results show that everyone has unique needs, strengths and challenges, and it’s worth taking an individualized approach to exercise,” says Joshi. “Whether that’s by working out with a trained professional, or just listening to your body and doing more of what makes you feel physically and mentally strong.”

“It might not be that the actual amount or intensity of the exercise isn’t right, but the ‘why’ behind it. If you’re punishing yourself for eating something, to keep up with that person you see on Instagram, or because you’re addicted to it, that’s a negative sign. .”

Beyvide agrees, explaining that intense physical activity is itself a form of stress. “While it’s a good thing to expose yourself to some physical stress during exercise, prolonged high-intensity activity can actually put our nervous system in a ‘fight-or-flight’ state, which happens when we’re going through a stressful situation.”

He emphasizes the importance of a balance between physical challenge and rest, the latter calming our nervous system and helping us “return to a state of relaxation and digestion, which helps calm the mind and improve cognitive function.”

What does this mean for you?

Exercise is good for us, but that doesn’t mean we always push ourselves to extremes. When it comes to mental health it’s all about balance. Depending on the type of exercise you are doing, rest is also important. Less intense types of exercise can be just as effective—and, as this study shows, may be more appropriate for some people.

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