It’s impossible to read the news without hearing how great exercise is for your health.

Physical activity can help control your weight, reduce your risk of diseases, including diabetes, and strengthen your bones and muscles.

If you need yet another reason to get off the sofa, new research demonstrates how it can also improve your mental health, reducing stress, depression and emotional difficulties.

But not all exercise is equal.

“There were pretty specific differences between the different types of exercise that people engaged in,” Yale University's Adam Chekroud said in an interview with Lancet Psychiatry.

Chekroud revealed those with the best mental health “not only did an exercise at a physically demanding level, but also engaged in something that was social”, like team sports.

 Team sports were the most beneficial for mental health

The wide-ranging study, that crunched data on physical exercise and mental health in 1.2 million individuals in America showed people who exercised had, on average, one and a half fewer days per month of poor mental health, than individuals who did not exercise.

Team sports like basketball or soccer posted the biggest reduction, of around 22%, followed by cycling, and then aerobics and gym activities.

World Mental Health Day

All types of exercise were associated with a lower mental-health burden, with the minimum reduction being around 12%.

The findings are important since mental health disorders are among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide. The World Health Organization estimates that one in four people on the planet will be affected by a mental or neurological disorder at some point in their life. More worrying still is that fact that two-thirds of those people never seek professional help.

 Most common mental health disorders
Image: Our World in Data

This year’s World Mental Health Day has a focus on young people, since the World Health Organization estimates half of all mental illness begins by the age of 14, with most cases going undetected and untreated.

Springboard to more research

The researchers said these broad patterns offered a springboard to further research, perhaps collecting digital data via smart devices from Fitbit, Apple or Garmin.

Helping people to recognize the benefits of exercise for their mental health and determining which exercises or regimes are likely to be most beneficial may ultimately help some people avoid traditional forms of treatment, such as drugs.

 Running helps reduce the mental health burden

Chekroud said the social aspects of team sport may explain why it offered the greatest benefits. He identified three different ways such exercise can help your mental health: motivation to get moving, the physical side, and a social element or element of mindfulness.

And for the lazier among us, the study also offers some encouragement, concluding that “more exercise was not always better”.

“The most heartwarming result was that even walking was associated with a reduction in mental-health burdens,” Chekroud said. “Even individuals who said they just went for walks actually experienced something between 15 to 20 percent reduction in their mental-health burden compared to not exercising at all.”