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Increased objectively assessed vigorous-intensity exercise is associated with reduced stress, increased mental health and good objective and subjective sleep in young adults


The role of physical activity as a factor that protects against stress-related mental disorders is well documented. Nevertheless, there is still a dearth of research using objective measures of physical activity. The present study examines whether objectively assessed vigorous physical activity (VPA) is associated with mental health benefits beyond moderate physical activity (MPA). Particularly, this study examines whether young adults who accomplish the American College of Sports Medicine's (ACSM) vigorous-intensity exercise recommendations differ from peers below these standards with regard to their level of perceived stress, depressive symptoms, perceived pain, and subjective and objective sleep. A total of 42 undergraduate students (22 women, 20 men; M = 21.24 years, SD = 2.20) volunteered to take part in the study. Stress, pain, depressive symptoms, and subjective sleep were assessed via questionnaire, objective sleep via sleep-EEG assessment, and VPA via actigraphy. Meeting VPA recommendations had mental health benefits beyond MPA. VPA was associated with less stress, pain, subjective sleep complaints and depressive symptoms. Moreover, vigorous exercisers had more favorable objective sleep pattern. Especially, they had increased total sleep time, more stage 4 and REM sleep, more slow wave sleep and a lower percentage of light sleep. Vigorous exercisers also reported fewer mental health problems if exposed to high stress. This study provides evidence that meeting the VPA standards of the ACSM is associated with improved mental health and more successful coping among young people, even compared to those who are meeting or exceeding the requirements for MPA.


Alex’s Notes: Even modest amounts of daily physical activity are a known protector of mental health. One of the most mentally challenging things faced in today’s world is the barrage of environmental stressors from work to school to social obligations. Thus, the solution seems simple: exercise to reduce stress. So the next inevitable question is how much exercise? The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that people engage in a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate physical activity (MPA) per week, or 60 minutes of vigorous physical activity (VPA) per week. The purpose of the study at hand was to compare the level of perceived stress, depressive symptoms, perceived pain, and subjective sleep complaints of young adults who completed the ACSM’s VPA recommendations with those who only met the MPA recommendations.

The subjects were 42 undergraduate students averaging 21 years of age. 19 met the ACSM’s standard for VPA and MPA, while 23 only met the MPA standard. And just as the authors show,

“Participants above the ACSM's vigorous-intensity exercise recommendations perceive less stress, experience fewer depressive symptoms, report less pain, and suffer from fewer subjective sleep complaints.”

Moreover, after controlling for age, gender, and MPA amount, the strength of the relationship between perceived stress, pain, and insomnia only actually increased, demonstrating the power of VPA. Interestingly, VPA was unrelated to pain in those with low stress levels but when stress became high VPA reduced the amount of perceived pain.

Additionally, nearly all aspects of sleep benefited as well with subjects who met the VPA guidelines sleeping around 45 minutes longer with more time spent in both stage-4 and REM sleep. This means that they spent less time in “light” sleep and had better sleep quality, and this held even after controlling for age, gender, and amount of MPA. However, no differences were found for the time it takes to fall asleep or the number of awakenings during the night.

Previous studies have demonstrated the mental health benefits of activity compared to inactivity, and this should not be news to use Super Humans. What this study does bring to light is that there is a benefit to performing more vigorous levels of activity above just being moderately active, supporting the importance of intensity – not simply activity – plays a crucial role in health. So keep walking, keep standing, stop sitting, move around, but most importantly keep lifting heavy things.

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