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Not all exercise is equal when it comes to mental health

Researchers from Western Sydney University and Deakin University are calling for new global physical activity guidelines to ensure they effectively address mental health.

In their paper, “Do we need physical activity guidelines for mental health: What does the evidence tell us?” researchers found that some types of physical activities are better for mental health than others.

The report’s co-author, Dr Rhiannon Lee White, explains, “We know now that physical activity may have completely opposite effects on mental health depending on the context in which it is undertaken.”

The report explains that current global physical activity recommendations encourage physical activity across a range of life domains including recreational/leisure time, transportation (walking or cycling), occupational, and household chores. The researchers found that physical activity in the recreational/leisure and transportation domains were both positively associated with mental health. In addition, physical activity undertaken during leisure time, not only had a positive association with mental health, but was inversely associated with mental ill-health. That is, physical activity within leisure-time is best for improved mental health and reduced mental ill health (e.g. depression). In contrast, household (domestic) physical activity was not associated with mental health or mental ill-health.

Current global guidelines also encourage people to “move more” by participating in incidental physical activity. Whilst the authors understand the physical benefits of incidental exercise, they stress that these types of activities,  “may not lead to improved mental health or reduced mental health.”

Instead, they advocate for new guidelines which make recommendations for specific types of exercise benefiting mental health.

“If we encourage individuals to participate in enjoyable physical activity during leisure time, the likelihood of receiving mental health benefits will increase,” says Dr White.