Want to beat depression? Taking regular exercise during leisure time is a great way to reduce the likelihood of developing depression according to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.
While the research, which involved around 40,000 Norwegian participants, showed that exercise during free time can have a positive impact on mental health and help beat depression, it also showed that the same did not apply to physical activity undertaken as part of the daily work routine.
Study shows exercise during free time can have a positive impact on mental health
The study was performed by researchers from the Institute of Psychology at King’s College London, along with the Norwegian Institute of Public Health and the University of Bergen.
Around 40,000 Norwegian participants of all age groups were interviewed about their levels of physical activity, including:
- How often they undertook physical activity in their leisure time
- How intensive the physical activity in their leisure time was
- How physically demanding their work was
Exercise in leisure time was classified as either light physical activity that didn’t involve sweating or getting out of breath, or intense physical activity which did lead to sweating and breathlessness. Participants had to indicate whether they exercised never, less than one hour per week, one to two hours per week, or more than three hours per week.
The level of physical activity at work was categorized into four levels. These were mostly sedentary, walk a lot, walk and lift a lot and intense physical activity.
Participants were also screened for symptoms of depression and anxiety using the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale. This is a self-reporting scale which looks at possible symptoms of depression and anxiety within the previous two weeks. 10% of the participants were seen to display symptoms of depression, while 15% displayed symptoms of anxiety. 5.6% showed symptoms of both.
The results of the study suggest that people who do not exercise during their leisure time are almost twice as likely to suffer from symptoms of depression as those that undertake regular physical activity outside of work.
People who exercised for more than three hours a week in their leisure time were the least likely to suffer from depression. The intensity of the exercise didn’t seem to make a difference to its mental health benefits, and there was no apparent link between exercise and anxiety. Physical activity at work did not seem to reduce the likelihood of developing depression in the same way as exercise during leisure time.
Why is leisure exercise better to beat depression than work exercise
The biological effects of exercise on mental health are well understood. Exercise provides a natural high and is a great way to lift your mood. However, this doesn’t account for why exercise during leisure time appears to be more beneficial against depression than physical activity undertaken during working hours.
The researchers suggest that the context the exercise takes place in may have some impact, as exercise can lead to increased social interaction which can have a positive effect on mental health. A form of exercise that provides a chance to interact with other people can be very beneficial in the fight against depression.
Some types of exercise that may be beneficial in a social rather than purely a physical context include:
- Taking part in a team sport
- Going for a family walk in the countryside
- Joining a cycling or running club
- Voluntary work such as gardening with a group
Dr Samuel Harvey, the lead researcher on the study suggests that, ”people who engage in regular leisure-time activity of any intensity are less likely to have symptoms of depression. We also found that the context in which activity takes place is vital and that the social benefits associated with exercise, like increased numbers of friends and social support, are more important in understanding how exercise may be linked to improved mental health than any biological markers of fitness.”
Some critics have argued that the research is flawed because it doesn’t take into account the possibility that people who are depressed are less likely to exercise than people who are not. However it is difficult to make a case against regular exercise, which has tremendous benefits for physical health as well as potential benefits for mental health.