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Exercise-related goals have changed to "improve mental health"

For the First Time, American Exercisers Report “Improve Mental Health” as their Most Important Exercise Related Goal

Four of my Discover Strength colleagues and I spent most of last week at the annual IHRSA (International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association) convention in Miami. Our biggest takeaway from the conference was that in 2022, for the first time, every age category ranging from Gen Z to Boomers listed, “Improved Mental Health” as the primary outcome they sought from exercise. For decades, the health club industry has been built around the members’ goals of either getting smaller (losing weight) or getting bigger (adding muscle). The “why” that underpins our exercise motivation has shifted.

“Move your Mental Health,” a brand new 70-page report from researchers at the John Brick Foundation summarizes key takeaways around exercise and mental health. The key takeaways listed below are found in this report as well as a number of recent meta-analyses.

What Type of Exercise?

  • High-intensity exercise regimens are generally more effective than low-intensity regimens (Aylett et al., 2018).
  • Combining or alternating strength/resistance training with cardiovascular/aerobic exercise shows stronger benefits on mental health outcomes than either one alone.

What Mental Health Outcomes are Most Impacted by Exercise?

  • Exercise is strongly associated with general mental and emotional well-being including reduced stress, improved mood, and quality of life.
  • Evidence strongly supports cardiovascular/aerobic exercise for reducing depression, showing medium to large effect sizes.
  • Resistance exercise significantly reduces depressive symptoms among adults regardless of health status (and regardless of the total amount of strength training performed, or whether or not strength improved).
  • Resistance exercise significantly improves generalized anxiety disorder severity and elicits large, clinically-meaningful improvements in worry and anxiety symptoms among young adults with anxiety.
  • In severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, exercise appears to benefit physical health and “negative” psychological symptoms such as emotional numbing and being withdrawn, more than “positive” symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions.

Take home message: Your workout drives acute and chronic mental health outcomes just as much as it drives long term physical health and fitness related outcomes.

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