Fend Off Depression And Hostility By Exercising 4 Days A Week

A new study shows that exercising for just 35 minutes a day, four days a week, significantly improves our overall mood.

There is a wealth of research to suggest that exercise helps reduce clinical depression symptoms in those of us with a predisposition to the condition, but until now, we have had little information on how exercise affects people with generally stable mental health. Sure, exercise has been linked to lower levels of depression, anxiety, and general crankiness—but past studies have been largely observational, meaning that generally speaking, people who work out often tend to be happier. As the old adage goes, correlation does not imply causation.

Lucky for us, a brand new study published in Health Psychology this month (talk about perfect timing) reveals how exercise affects generally healthy, but inactive people. Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center gathered 119 adults between the ages of 20 and 45, without any prior history of mental health issues. At the beginning of the study, the researchers gave everyone a questionnaire to measure their current levels of anxiety, hostility, depression, and anger. Each of which is a completely normal reaction to the situation we’re currently facing in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, by the way.

Half the participants started working out four times a week, while the other half didn’t change anything about their lifestyle. The amount of exercise that the experimental group committed to was nothing too extreme, just 35 minutes of aerobic activity at a pace that increased their heart rate to 70-80% of their maximum. For our practical purposes, if it leaves you semi-breathless, that is the kind of aerobic activity we’re talking about.

The participants exercised like this for three months, and then both groups filled out the mood questionnaire again. At this point, researchers also asked the group that had been working out to stop entirely for a month. It’s worth noting that many were reluctant to give up their new routine—they had learned to enjoy exercising over the course of those three months. This just goes to show, if you give yourself time to develop a habit, it will get easier.

Regardless, everyone stopped exercising for that final month of the study, and then filled out one more mood questionnaire. This way, the researchers could track any changes over the course of the four months.

Despite the fact that everyone who entered the study came in with good mental health scores, the group that exercised managed to improve even more. After exercising four times a week for three months, those participants’ overall scores on the depression scale dropped by a staggering 35% percent. Their hostility scores also dropped significantly. The control groups’ scores did not change (those were the participants who didn’t exercise at all).

While anxiety and anger scores did not drop as significantly, the researchers suggest that those scores were already very low at the onset of the study, and didn’t have much lower to go.

That said, the positive changes in overall mood were long-lasting. Even after that month without exercise, participants in the experimental group maintained lower scores than the control group.

So, there you have it, exercise really is the ultimate coping mechanism. Working out just four times a week, for 35 minutes a day helps stave off depression and hostility—more important now than ever before.