When discussing the benefits of fitness, we usually focus on the physical side of things. However, there are additional social and psychological benefits that are often overlooked. A study this month in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity shed some light on the psychosocial aspects of fitness.
Since there is so much important information out there about the physical effects of exercise and its importance in reducing disease, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services produces guidelines for the public. While most serious athletes will exceed the standard guidelines for good physical health, we don’t know if the same could be said for optimal mental health.
When determining what guidelines to recommend for good physical health, the Department of Health and Human Services depends on the relationships found in science. When it comes to mental health, however, there simply isn’t enough information out there to be able to make the same recommendations. In fact, the Department of Health and Human Services noted in their 2008 guidelines that “insufficient evidence precludes conclusions about the minimal or optimal types or amounts of physical activity for mental health.”
In the latest study, the researchers were looking to compile the existing information on how physical activity affects mental health. They determined that a meta-analysis, or a study that examines other studies, was necessary. Reviews like this one are often used to recommend future research as well as provide answers.
The first thing the research team did was address the suspicion laid out in the official guidelines. They identified 3,668 studies as candidates for their review, but only eleven studies met their criteria. The researchers were interested specifically in team sports to emphasize the social aspect of human psychological heath. While this factor eliminated many of the studies that only examined individual exercise, that’s still a scant few considering they looked at over 22 years worth of studies.
Despite the small number of studies, they all agreed that there are both psychological and social benefits from exercise. The most common benefits found were feelings of wellbeing and less stress. Unsurprisingly, team sports were better at creating social health, as well as psychological health in general. Interestingly, the differences between solo and team sports in health outcomes weren’t because teamwork resulted in more vigorous or more frequent exercise, but were purely a result of increased socialization.
While the results of this study aren’t shocking, they reinforce our beliefs and may even motivate some readers to go out and take up a sport. The researchers advise picking a sport that you find to be the most fun, which actually yields the greatest health benefits, even if you choose a solo sport. In other words, having the most fun will make you the healthiest.
1. Rochelle Eime, et. al., “A systematic review of the psychological and social benefits of participation in sport for adults: informing development of a conceptual model of health through sport,” International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 10:135, 2013.
2. Physical activity guidelines advisory committee: Physical activity guidelines advisory committee report, 2008. Washington DC: US Department of Health and Human Services; 2008:G8–39
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