smiling athlete exercise mental health

The Most Effective Sports for Improving Mental Health


I get thank you notes from cyclists’ spouses and significant others.

They typically containing some variation of, “Thank you for returning my husband/wife to me. The happy and vibrant person I fell in love with is back!” I have no doubt helping athletes train consistently, rediscover their fitness, and have fun on the bike again can have a transformative effect on a person’s life, career, and relationships. Exercise has long been known to positively impact mental health, and with access to survey data from 1.2 million Americans, a new study aims to see how sport type and exercise frequency, duration, and intensity influence the association between exercise and mental health.

The study, published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry and featured in a Wall Street Journal article, examined data from the 2011, 2013, and 2015 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention administered via telephone surveys with Americans 18 years old and above in all 50 states. While it can’t really identify causality (whether exercise improves mental health or people with better mental health exercise more), but the sheer magnitude of the sample size provides an advantage over similar research with much smaller groups.

Before looking at the data, it’s important to note the 1.2 million respondents were from the general population. Some were probably athletes, but the researchers didn’t specifically look at the influence of sport type, frequency, duration, and intensity on mental health in already moderately- to well-trained athletes (i.e. you and me). I would suspect the data trends would be similar for a trained athlete subpopulation, but perhaps the effect sizes could be different.

The measure they were looking for came from the answer to this question: ““Now thinking about your mental health, which includes stress, depression, and problems with emotions, for how many days during the past 30 days was your mental health not good?” Other questions in the survey were also used to gather data. Here is what they found, and how it may apply to you.

Any exercise is better than none

Activities were divided into eight categories:

  • Team sports – includes basketball, baseball, hockey, etc.
  • Cycling
  • Recreational – catch-all that included yoga and golf
  • Aerobic or gym exercise
  • Walking
  • Running or jogging
  • Winter or water sports
  • Household chores

The mean number of “not good” mental health days was 3.36 for all subjects. Across all exercise categories, people reported 1.49 fewer “not good” mental health days than people who did not exercise at all.

Exercising with people improves mental health the most

Researchers examined the data by exercise type and found people who participated in team sports showed the greatest reduction in mental burden during the previous 30 days, compared to people who didn’t exercise. This isn’t all that surprising, as team sports provide social connections and reduce feelings of isolation.

Cycling ranked second for reducing mental burden. I don’t know if a distinction was made between outdoor cycling, gym-based group cycling classes, or commuting. The way I read the study, it seems all cycling is lumped together and perhaps the prosocial aspects of popular group cycling classes helped boost cycling’s ranking.

Exercise is even more important for people with a history of depression

One of the questions in the survey asked whether people about their history of diagnosed depression, and across all categories exercise had a greater positive impact on mental health for people with a history of depression. It is irresponsible to say exercise cures depression, but it has been shown to increase resilience against depression and to provide complementary benefits to some people taking antidepressant medications.

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Many athletes use training, at least in part, as self-care. Whether you have a history of depression or not, getting out on the bike provides distance – physically and figuratively – from the stresses of work and home. And that’s before you take the biochemical responses to exercise that reduce the feelings and physical effects of mental stress. If your family, friends, or coworkers tell you to go ride your bike, pay attention. They’re likely telling you your mood or behaviors have deteriorated to the point you’re ineffective or insufferable.

For best results, exercise 45-60 minutes 3-5 times per week

Generally speaking, all activities reached the lowest measure of mental burden with exercise duration of about 45 minutes. After 60 minutes the level of reduction either levels off or the amount of mental burden starts to increase again. Similarly, the curve for exercise frequency are U-shaped, with three to five times a week at the bottom, associated with the greatest reduction in mental burden. The curves rise for people who exercise six and seven days per week. The researchers concluded that 2-6 hours per week is optimal amount of exercise for reducing mental burden.

This is where the experiences of trained athletes may not match the study results. Remember, the 1.2 million people surveyed are representative of the general American population. My suspicion is that within the populations of dedicated amateur and masters athletes, the reduction of mental burden extends further into longer exercise sessions and maybe to exercising six times per week. Interestingly, the researchers found all levels of exercise intensity reduced mental burden, but “vigorous exercise [was] associated with a more favorable burden than either light or moderate exercise.”

Exercise works for everyone

Well, maybe not everyone, but researchers found their results remained consistent regardless of socioeconomics, education level, household income, and even BMI. More than that, the effect size of exercise on mental burden was greater for exercise than for other variables. In other words, exercise was associated with improved mental health to a greater extent than increasing household income from $15,000 to $50,000.

I’ve seen exercise save marriages, rescue careers, and even save lives. The physical benefits play a role, but the biggest transformations are often in an athlete’s outlook on life, their level of optimism, their positive engagement within relationships, and their ability to think clearly and get out of their own way. Exercise is not the cure for all the world’s ills, but it’s always a step in the right direction.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

Chekroud, Sammi R, et al. “Association between Physical Exercise and Mental Health in 1·2 Million Individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: a Cross-Sectional Study.” The Lancet Psychiatry, vol. 5, no. 9, 2018, pp. 739–746., doi:10.1016/s2215-0366(18)30227-x.

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Comments 14

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  8. I can highly recommend outdoor swimming to help tackle depression

  9. Cycling has been a major life line for me for the last 15 years. It was my major stress reliever and also served to keep me physically fit throughout the ten years my wife was confined to a wheel chair when I needed all the physical and mental strength I could muster. Now it serves to keep me going and sane after losing her to Spinal Cerebellar Ataxia 4 years ago. By the way, Monday September 25th is National Ataxaia Awareness Day.

    1. Ken:
      Thanks for sharing your experiences. I will say you rode so strong at ATOC this year. We are all proud of you at CTS!

  10. Having played team sports through college (hockey, baseball, swimming), I would add that club cycling mimics similar benefits to team sports in addition to other benefits of solo cycling and exercise in general.

  11. Good study. Even though I am retired I feel better when I ride my bike and work out in my home gym. I even have a part time vehicle detailing business which allows me to interact with my customers. Sitting around has never been my life style and all that does is create boredom which could lead to depression. If i do have idle time I like to read to keep my mind sharp.

    1. Ray:
      Sounds like you are doing it the right way. Keep up the good work on keep your body and mind sharp and strong.

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