Exercise is good for our mental health, but which type is best?
A recent BSc study exploring the effects of mind-body versus conventional exercise approaches:
Having recently completed my BSc in Psychology, I am excited to have the opportunity to share more about the process and findings of my dissertation research project.
Arguably the most daunting part of getting a degree is completing an individual research project, and the first step of course, is arriving at a topic and finding a supervisor. For me, the area of health psychology was not an obvious choice going into the academic year, but I knew I wanted my project to be something that I was not only interested in, but passionate about - after all, I was about to spend the good part of the next 6 months working on it. Coincidentally, around the same time I discovered a new type of exercise, that was enjoyable, I was able to stick to, and did wonders not only for my physical but also my mental health. Yoga became something I identified with and truly cared about almost instantly and after hours of reading and reviewing the areas of research that my university provided supervision for, I had one of those lightbulb moments: I could explore the effects of yoga on psychological factors. I was lucky enough to find a very supportive supervisor rather quickly and after a quick discussion I had my topic: Exercise, stress and mental wellbeing: comparing the effects of mind body and other types of exercise. So, let’s talk about why the topic is important, what my findings were, and what are some of the implications for exercise research.
The fact that exercise is good for us is no news. Between public health campaigns and media coverage it is difficult to forget the many benefits of exercise: for example, that physical activity greatly reduces the risk of many chronic illnesses, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer (WHO, 2018). More recently however, attention has shifted to also highlight the positive effects of exercise on mental health. A large body of research has shown a clear indication that increased physical activity is associated with better mental health outcomes, specifically lower levels of depression, stress and anxiety (Byrne & Byrne, 1993). With such a wide array of related health benefits, as well as its ready availability to most people, at least in some form, it seems like exercise might be an obvious answer when it comes to improving general health and wellbeing by preventing and/or improving many chronic physical and mental health conditions. If such a simple and cost-effective solution is available why are we still observing a high prevalence of such conditions? For instance, we know that the prevalence of mood disorders has been increasing at an alarming rate, especially in younger populations (WHO, 2017). Additionally, physical inactivity is a major public health issue, having been identified as the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality (WHO, 2018). Thus, the importance of exercise research within health psychology seems obvious.
My research set out to compare conventional exercise approaches with the so-called mind-body types of exercise, which refers to exercise practices which place an important emphasis on the mind as actively-involved in the practice, and often this includes inward-directed, non-judgemental attention. Special importance is given to the present moment and being conscious of the process of the exercise practice, which is what distinguishes mind-body from other types of exercise, which tend to be more
result-focused and goal-oriented (La Forge, 2005). Mind-body type exercises include exercise practices such as yoga, Pilates, and martial arts, such as Tai Chi and Qigong. While both approaches have been shown to have a strong positive influence on psychological factors affecting mood, the extant literature is lacking in studies assessing the two in a direct comparison. This study aimed to address this issue and thus compare mind-body and other types of exercise on two markers of psychological functioning, namely perceived stress, which was measured by The Perceived Stress Scale (PSS, Cohen et al., 1983) and psychological distress, measured by The General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12, Goldberg & Williams, 1988). A researcher-generated exercise questionnaire was also used which asked participants to provide details about type, duration, frequency, length of time, and personal motivation for engaging in a particular type of exercise. It was hypothesized that mind-body approaches will be related to lower levels of perceived stress and psychological distress, due to the supposedly added benefit of mindfulness practice. The cross-sectional design that I employed in this study allowed for the research to be conducted online and the 37 participants (age range: 16 - 67) who took part were recruited via voluntary sampling from several social media platforms. A univariate analysis of variance was conducted for each dependent variable, comparing the three exercise groups in the sample: mind-body group, other exercise group, and both mind-body and other exercise group. Contradictory to the proposed hypothesis, the mind-body group exhibited the highest level of both perceived stress and psychological distress. However, the analyses revealed no significant difference between the three groups on both self-report measures.
Based on the findings from my research it was not possible to conclude that one approach is superior in improving psychological wellbeing. While these results could have been affected by limitations of the study design, such as the lack of a control and intervention groups, or the relatively small sample size, the study does provide us with a foundation for further exploration of the subject and several trends that have emerged from these data might hold a possible answer as to the underlying factors that determine the success of exercise approaches in improving mental health outcomes. For example, it is worth considering that the relationship between exercise and mental wellbeing might be a two-way one: different individuals’ choice of a given exercise practice might be associated with a variety of reasons for engaging in that practice. For instance, it is reasonable to infer that individuals with higher levels of mood related symptomology and perceived stress would seek out exercise practices that involve mindfulness and are popularly considered to have a positive effect on mood. Conversely, individuals whose primary motivation for exercising is enhanced physical health and fitness might choose to engage in other, more high-intensity and outcome-focused types of exercise. Indeed, in the present study 72.7% of the mind-body group indicated emotional wellbeing as their primary motivation for practicing this type of exercise, while the opposite trend was present in the non-mind-body group: 66.7% reported physical fitness as the primary reason for their choice of exercise. Furthermore, previous studies have indicated that lower intensity exercise might be more beneficial for individuals with higher levels of psychological distress, while high-intensity exercise seems to be more effective for individuals who do not report mood-related problems (Stanton & Reaburn, 2014). If this is the case, individuals in the other exercise group might have had lower levels of distress to begin with. These trends, while not sufficient to provide us with a definitive answer, might offer an insight into the complex and interrelated factors that play a role on the impact that physical exercise has on psychological wellbeing. There is an indication that factors such as personal motivation, current physical and mental health, as well as general and exercise-specific attitudes might all be involved in an individual’s choice of exercise, which inevitably would have a subsequent impact on the efficacy of that exercise practice in alleviating stress and enhancing mood and wellbeing, amongst other outcomes.
All in all, I have found the process of conducting my own independent research very enjoyable and my desire to pursue a career in research has been further enhanced by this experience. Furthermore, the topic I chose for my research only reconfirmed my interest in health behaviours and the field of health psychology in general. I hope the findings from my study contribute to the current state of exercise research and inspire further investigation into mind-body and mindfulness practices and their related benefits for physical and mental health. If you are interested in any further information regarding the study, please contact me and I will be more than happy to discuss the matter in more detail.
Byrne, A., & Byrne, D. G. (1993). The effects of exercise on depression, anxiety and other mood states: a review. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 37 (6), 565 – 574.
Cohen, S., Kamarck, T., and Mermelstein, R. (1983). A global measure of perceived stress. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 24, 386-396.
Golderberg, D., & Williams, P. (1988). A user's guide to the General Health Questionnaire. Windsor, UK: NFER-Nelson.
La Forge, R. (2005). Aligning Mind and Body: Exploring the Disciplines of Mindful Exercise. American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness Journal, 9 (5), 7 – 14.
Stanton R., & Reaburn, P. (2014). Exercise in the treatment for depression: A review of the exercise program variables. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 17, 177 – 182.
World Health Organization. (2017). Depression and other common mental disorders: global health estimates (No. WHO/MSD/MER/2017.2). World Health Organization.
World Health Organisation (2018). Physical activity. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/physical-activity