8th October 2020

Goldilocks in the workplace—making the link between exercise and mental health

22nd August, 2018

Jenni Newcombe

When it came to having great mental health, my guess is that Goldilocks had it nailed. She was a girl ahead of her time in a number of ways. She was in touch with what made her happy and wasn’t afraid to take a risk or two in making it work for her.

Lessons from Goldilocks

Goldilocks understood the importance of a healthy diet (warm oats for breakfast); she took time out of her day to add low frequency brain waves to nurture both mental health and creativity (in the most comfy chair possible); and, she invested in sleep. (Needless to say she could nod off at the drop of a hat in someone else’s bed.)

Anecdotally, there’s evidence that Goldilocks incorporated steps into her week, undertaking at least one walk to her Granny’s house. However, as for physical activity, we don’t know if she was getting too little, too much or if it was just right. 

Is it possible to know how much exercise leads to improved mental health? Perhaps, like me, Goldilocks was a bit jaded by all the data, or maybe she didn’t know if a gentle stroll to Granny’s contributed to her mental health. She may just have been working out at the gym, after hours, with the knowledge that her blood plasma endorphin levels would kick in sufficiently after an hour to numb some of the physical stress and pain. Or maybe she knew more than I am giving her credit for: that serotonin and norphenylephrine, two ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters are released during workouts, a lot earlier than endorphins, possibly contributing to lowering her general levels of stress and elevating her sense of wellbeing. It isn’t clear.

Lessons from 2018 data

For researchers at Oxford and Yale universities it wasn’t clear. So Chekroud et al set out to understand better the link between exercise and mental health. They focused their attention on the type, frequency and duration of exercise needed to lessen the mental health ‘burden’. Their study published recently in The Lancet Psychiatry Journal, analysed a huge amount of data collected over four years, in the U.S.A. The data was collected from more than 1.2 million people over the age of 18 years. Participants reported on how often, how long and what type of physical activity, if any, they undertook, and recorded the amount of time they experienced emotional problems, depression and stress.

Here is what the study found.

To exercise or not to exercise?

Doing no exercise is not good for mental health. Doing too much is not good.

Compared to those who didn’t exercise, people who did, experienced one and a half fewer days per month of feeling ‘low’. This is quite something when considering the average person reported almost three and a half days every month of poor mental health.

As an employer or manager, or for anyone in the workplace, this is an important statistic: exercisers reported 50% fewer days of poor mental health than non-exercisers. The implications for the workplace are huge. One and a half days a month may be lost directly as a result of poor mental health that can be addressed simply through exercise.

How much and how often?

Much less than I had thought. The study found that about 45 minutes—give or take 15 minutes—three to five times a week is enough physical activity to achieve optimal mental health benefits.

While it’s not detrimental to mental health to work out for more than 90 minutes a day—for those who are gym or exercise ‘junkies’—any time over the 45 minutes, three to five times a week will not bring additional mental health benefits.

Working out for more than three hours at a time, and more than 23 times a month is linked to poor mental health and is akin to doing no exercise at all. This extreme amount, according to the researchers, is possibly associated with obsessive behaviours, indicating an existing risk of poor mental health before the exercise even began.

What type?

Any type.

The study tracked 75 different physical activities including fishing, skiing, looking after children and all the usual types. However, activities that provided the greatest positive effects were cycling, aerobics, going to the gym and, in number one spot, team sports, which lowered time spent experiencing poor mental health by a significant 22%. Jogging, walking, and gym workouts were not far behind team sports. They each contributed an 18 and 21% lowering of the time spent experiencing mental stress and depression.

It is clear that being involved in a team sport is good for us, even when we set aside the benefits of the physical activity. Being in a team is associated with increased resilience and it also helps to lower levels of social isolation, which is associated with reducing depression.

For those who like to garden, it will come as no surprise that this kind of physical activity is good for mental wellbeing. It is probably also no surprise that housework offers physical benefits. It is more of a surprise that housework and gardening both contributed equally to reducing time spent feeling depressed, by about ten per cent.

Who benefits?

No matter the demographic background—age, race, gender, income, marital status—moderate exercise is linked to lowering the mental health burden. And, when the exercise regime—type, frequency and duration—is personalised, it appears to be linked to even better outcomes.

How can we apply this in the workplace?

Physical activity has been incorporated into many workplaces for quite some time. It’s not new. (Although I have worked in four different workplaces over the past 12 years in which is was not. Any physical activity incorporated into my day came with a high metaphorical price tag. From my experience it sometimes caused stress to take time out of the week to get in physical activity.)

In a paper way back in 2005, in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, Wendell Taylor wrote about two major barriers to improving quality of life in the workplace: physical activity and stress. Taylor was concerned about sedentary lifestyles and stress levels, which were at an all time high in America.

He suggested restructuring the working day to incorporate ‘booster breaks’ to replace ‘smoke breaks’ and ‘coffee breaks’—which he believed only encouraged health-compromising behaviours. These booster breaks, consisting of exercise or meditation, would serve to reduce job-related stress and physical strain while, at the same time, increasing levels of physical fitness.

In 2005, Taylor lacked the data and detailed findings that we have in 2018, but had solutions that might work for some—although probably not for everyone!

Taylor also understood what might stand in the way of an organisation implementing exercise or meditation at work. He knew that a change like this would only be adopted when seen by managers to be compatible with the ‘culture, philosophy and vision of the organisation.’

In 2018, we understand the link between exercise and mental health and now have clear guidelines about how much, how often and what type make the difference to the quality of our mental health. We know that physical activity can make a measurable impact on the quality of our lives, our mental wellbeing, and on engagement and productivity.

What remains is to be intentional in our implementation of ‘personalised’, workable exercise for mental health, for everyone, into the culture, philosophy and vision of all our workplaces, but most importantly into the way we work.

Perhaps we could all be just a little bit more Goldilocks: not too little, not too much, but get it just right.

Jenni Newcombe

Jenni Newcombe is chief neuroscience nerd at MindTrust (Kokoro Consulting Ltd). She works on the premise that understanding the brain can be harnessed for good – that this knowledge has the capacity to create informed organisational change and greater individual self-knowledge, but above all, to nurture self/compassion at work.

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