Will exercising every day make you unhappy?

Recent research says yes - but if you like to run every day, you should do it, says Paul Halford

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Results of a study published this morning in The Lancet concluded that exercising for more than 90 minutes or more than five times a week could be bad for your mental health.

Many of us runners would disagree, using our own experiences as evidence. So who is right? Should those who do two-hour long runs or only have one rest day per week start hacking back in order to feel happier?

A closer look at the study reveals that "exercise" was defined as any type of physical activity, including childcare, housework, lawn-mowing and fishing. I don't know about you - but mowing the lawn every day would make me pretty miserable! Including all these other sorts of activities in the survey seems to throw the results into question when it comes to analysing the real benefits of proper exercise.

While housework as an activity is to be encouraged for sedentary individuals, we believe that running can bring much more enjoyment than doing the vacuuming the floor.

Writing a linked comment in The Lancet, Dr Gary Cooney, Gartnavel Royal Hospital, said: "A final caution pertains to how studies approach a definition of exercise. In the current study, we see the inclusion of activities such as childcare, housework, lawn-mowing, carpentry, fishing, and yoga as forms of exercise. In other studies, these activities would be excluded for not fulfilling the definition of exercise as offered by the American College of Sports Medicine:.. The study by Chekroud and colleagues, in its all-encompassing approach, might more accurately be considered a study in physical activity rather than exercise."

However, it should be pointed out that, in this study of 1.2 million people living in the USA, even when the activities were isolated to "running and jogging", there was a slight rise in the number of days of poor mental health reported when frequency rose above 24 times per month - and when duration increased beyond 45 minutes.

This would seem to fly in the face of our own anecdotal evidence, though. After all, don't we feel much better for the rest of the day knowing that we've done our run? Several studies show how exercise release endorphins which make us feel better, so why should these positives wear off just because we'd done more than five times in the past week?

The authors admitted: "The study used people’s self-reported assessment of their mental health and exercise levels so could be subject to bias. It also only asked participants about their main form of exercise so could underestimate the amount of exercise they do if they do more than one type."

Nevertheless, we should not disregard the results of the largest observational study of its kind. One of the authors of the study, Adam Chekroud, said: “It’s difficult to speculate what is driving the effect. It is easy to imagine why someone might have poor mental health if they are exercising more six or seven days per week. They could be getting run down (physically exhausted) or burned out (mentally), both of which might make them feel stressed or depleted.”

Ultimately, though, the figures in the study are only averages. Not everybody likes exercise. Some do, but don't like to do it every day. 

If running every day makes you feel happier then, as long as it's not done to an extent or in such a way that it damages you physically, then do it every day. If running every day depresses you, then don't do it!

At the same time, maybe we shouldn't be so evangelical when it comes to recommending running to everyone. Suggest it, yes, but don't assume that it works for everyone.

So, get out and enjoy running the trails when you feel like it today. Run through the forests or over the hills, be at one with nature, burn those endorphins. Or do the vacuuming if that makes you feel happier.