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Which Is Better for Mental Health: Quick, Rigorous Exercise or a Long, Easy Activity?

Don't discount the long, leisurely walk.


There’s no doubt that getting 30 minutes of exercise each day does great things for your mental and physical health. Some benefits start immediately after you finish that workout routine — like a boost in cognition, lower stress, and better sleep later that evening. But are 30 minutes of moderate to rigorous exercise the best way to boost your mental health? It turns out, consistently staying active at a lower intensity might be just as beneficial.

A new observational study published in JAMA Psychiatry says that staying active for long periods of time each day — even at a lower intensity level — may make you happier. “There’s something about getting going early, staying active all day, and following the same routine each day that seems to be protecting older adults,” lead author Stephen Smagula, PhD, said in a press release. “What’s exciting about these findings is that activity patterns are under voluntary control, which means that making intentional changes to one’s daily routine could improve health and wellness.” 

How the Researchers Measured the Benefits of Staying Active

To find a link between physical activity levels and mental health, researchers recruited 1,800 people aged 65 and older. Participants had to wear accelerometers (small devices that measure physical activity) for seven consecutive days. Then, they completed questionnaires on their mental health and cognitive function.

After analyzing the data, the researchers divided the participants into three general groups. Group one, or 37.6 percent of the adults, consistently woke up before 7 a.m. and stayed active for 15 hours each day. Group two (32.6 percent of adults) woke up and went to bed a little later in the day, but consistently stayed active for an average 13.4 hours daily. Group three (29.8 percent) had inconsistent routines and their activity levels were far less predictable.

After comparing questionnaires between each group, here’s what the study authors found: Adults in group one (who were the most active) tended to be the happiest and have the best cognitive function out of all participants. Group two experienced more depression symptoms and poorer cognition, and group three had the highest rates of depression and the lowest performance on cognitive questions.

“People often think about activity intensity being important for health, but it might be the duration of activity that matters more,” said Smagula. “This is a different way of thinking about activity: You may not need to be sprinting or running a marathon but simply staying engaged with activities throughout the day.” 

Study Limitations

This is great news for many adults over 65. Someone who can’t do rigorous exercise due to an injury, for example, can still reap the health benefits of consistent, daily activity like walking or completing chores.

However, this study isn’t the final answer on what type of exercise is best. It was observational, and every variable could not be controlled — which likely means many factors contributed to the better mental health of the early risers. For instance: Early risers may also be the type of people who eat better diets, socialize often, and don’t smoke. People with erratic schedules may also eat poor diets, socialize less, or smoke. The researchers adjusted their data for confounding variables like these, but they could not control them.

The Bottom Line

This study raises an important question: Why isn’t consistent, low-level activity considered as important as 30 minutes of exercise every day? A long, daily walk may be the right option for mature adults who can’t do a strenuous workout.

To be clear, half-hour workouts are great. But if activities like gardening or walking are more your thing, you’ll reap the mental health benefits.

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