Feeling anxious, depressed, or even hostile? A new study suggests working out regularly (about four times a week) lowers depression and other negative feelings by 35 percent.

Here’s how they came to the conclusion: Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center recruited 119 healthy (but somewhat sedentary) volunteers with no known mental health conditions. After a series of questionnaires to determine participants' overall mental well-being, the volunteers, aged 20-45, were randomly divided into two groups. One which acted as the control group and lived the next 16 weeks as per usual and the other, a workout group which had participants exercise at the lab four times a week for 35 minutes.

Participants either cycled on a stationary bike or walked/ran on a treadmill at a pace 70-80 percent of their maximum heart rate for the duration of the workout.

After three months of this routine, levels of depression in the workout group lowered by 35 percent, whereas the control group’s levels were unwavered. Levels of hostility also lowered significantly.

“There’s no surprise,” says Paul Gionfriddo, President and CEO of Mental Health America. “There's no question. We learned about the benefit of exercise, and it doesn’t have to be strenuous exercise. As the study suggests, moderate exercise is sufficient, and accumulative time of a couple hours a week is important.”

Researchers also suggest the benefits of regular exercise are long-term. After three months of exercising, the workout group was asked to avoid exercise for one month. During this month, the former exercising group maintained healthier mental well-being than their sedentary counterparts. Though, nearing the end of the inactive month, moods were beginning to reach the levels in which they started prior to the experiment.

“Sometimes people get caught up in, ‘Well, if I don’t exercise every day or every other day then I’m not going to get the benefit,’” says Gionfriddo. “The important thing is for people not to focus in on the four times a week for 35 minutes. That’s the study, but what is being revealed is that any form of regular moderate exercise for a reasonable amount of time is going to improve your physical health and your mental health.”

Over the last few weeks, Mental Health America has seen a 15-20 percent increase in online mental health screenings. Gionfriddo says this is just the first wave of an increased need for mental health services. Mental Health America believes in the Before Stage 4 (B4Stage4) philosophy, that mental health conditions should be treated long before they reach the most critical points in the disease process.

 “My fear is that we will continue to do what we’ve done in the past, which is wait until stage four. Wait until people become a danger to themselves or others before recognizing how significant this issue is,” says Gionfriddo. “Mental health conditions will not go away just because COVID-19 goes away.”

“We need exercise more than ever, as the quarantine is requiring us to alter our lives in drastic ways, which can have a profound impact on our mood,” says Dr. Kelly Vincent, Psy.D. “Plus, sedentary behavior and low levels of physical activity also have negative effects on our health, well-being, and quality of life.”


Staying ProACTIVE

Creating an exercise routine could be the key to staying positive and accountable with your at-home workouts, while monitoring your overall mental well-being.

“The brain loves patterns or things that feel familiar,” says Dr. Vincent. “Feeling a sense of normalcy or familiarity can be helpful to ease feelings of stress and anxiety.”

While your routine may have included going to your local gym every morning or the same group fitness class every week, creating a “new normal” fitness routine at the same time every day could be the key to lowering anxiety.

“Yoga is often my favorite. It helps rebalance our nervous system, which is often tied to stress and anxiety. This allows for the mind to quiet, which is critical when coping with anxiety. The physical practice allows us to get the blood flowing and release, what I like to call, those warm, fuzzy, mood-boosting endorphins,” says Dr. Vincent. 

“Perhaps you make one small promise to yourself, such as moving your body every day,” says Dr. Vincent. “This could be something as simple as stretching in the morning or participating in one HIIT workout online each week. Staying active can help protect your mood and outlook on life.”


Download Dr. Vincent’s Pocket Guide For Anxiety here.

Take your free, anonymous online mental health screening at screening.mhanational.org.


Tips For Staying Active at Home

Find an online accountability partner. It can be difficult to find the motivation to stick to your at-home workouts alone. Try FaceTiming a friend and doing the same online class together, or take turns putting each other through bodyweight circuits.

Get outside. If still available in your area, try to get outside once a day for a walk, run, or bike ride. You can even take your bodyweight circuit outside and reap the benefits of training outdoors.

Dress the part. Get your head in the game and put on those cute leggings and runners. While we are all for staying in your PJs 90 percent of the time, it’s just not as motivating as putting on that cute gym gear.

Share your sweat sessions. Are you going for a new 5K time? Did you just try a killer abs and arms workout? Share it on social and inspire your followers and yourself to stay accountable.

Set a designated area. We don’t all have at-home gyms, but if you can set up a little corner in your home and leave it, you’ll be more likely to stick to a daily routine. Let that rolled out yoga mat and dumbbells be your daily reminder to sweat it out.

Quarantine sweat session. Are you isolating with someone? Try this STRONG no-equipment partner workout for a challenging sweat.

No weights? No problem. Use canned foods for a high-rep arm workout or get creative with our full-body workout you can do with a towel.