Exercise is good for your physical health and your mental health, too. Many people take up exercise as a way of boosting their mental well-being. But not all exercise is equally beneficial. And while it does matter if you exercise alone or in a group, it is more critical as to why you exercise.
One study examined how the setting people exercised in related to mental health. The study looked at 460 students aged between 16 and 24 years old, comparing those who took part in team sports, informal fitness groups (such as yoga classes or running groups), and those who exercised alone at least once a week. They followed up six months later to measure their mental health.
The study found that students who did group physical activity (either in team sports or informal fitness groups) had better mental health than those who exercised alone. Students exercising in groups were also more physically active, doing nearly twice as much activity as those who exercised alone. They also reported feeling more connected to the people around them.
The researchers suggest the reason students exercising in groups had better mental health maybe because of the social support network they developed during group physical activities.
My own research also explored how informal football programs helped with mental health recovery. My colleagues and I conducted two studies, one looking at community football initiatives and the other at football programs within NHS mental health services. We interviewed people who played football at the sessions, where players, coaches and healthcare staff all took part in the activities together.
We found that participants valued group activities, as they were able to connect with people who shared similar interests and experiences. Participants also said that being able to choose to play a sport they enjoyed contributed to mental health. These programs can support mental health recovery, allowing participants to live a hopeful and satisfying life despite any limitations caused by mental illness.
And while these participants benefited from the team aspect of their exercise, our research shows they also benefited from the type of motivation that moved them to play.
The Reasons We Exercise
If we are motivated from within and feel we have more choice and control, we seem to experience more benefits from exercise.
We’re also more likely to experience mental health benefits from exercise if the environment makes us feel we are more capable or likely to succeed, and when we have stronger connections to others. If these aspects are perceived in an environment, we tend to take part in activities because they are enjoyable or personally important to us. This is known as “autonomous motivation.” Studies show that when people do activities for these reasons, they feel happier and have more energy.
On the other hand, feeling that we have less choice or control, or that we’re not good at what we’re doing, can have a negative effect on well-being. When we feel this way, we tend to do activities to avoid feeling guilty or being punished—or to receive praise or attention from others. This is known as “controlled motivation.”
While these external reasons can be powerful ways to get us started with exercise, we’re much less likely to continue being active over the long term because we’re not doing things for our own enjoyment. Crucially, this type of motivation has been shown to have a negative impact on mental health.
[Editor’s note: This research does not indicate whether the mental health consequence of feeling pressured to exercise outweigh the more general mental health benefit of the exercise itself. In other words, it is possible to experience mental health benefits of exercise, regardless of motivation.]
For example, if I choose to jog on my own because it’s important to me, this is likely to be better for my mental health than if I played a team sport where the only reason I participate is that I worry about letting my teammates or coach down. This would be because I’m not choosing to take part in the sport for my own reasons, but for the sake of other people.
Research looking at the reasons people participate in team sports and their mental health in the United Kingdom and Ireland shows how important the right type of motivation is in relation to mental health.
Team members who were able to make choices about their training felt connected to those around them and that they were performing well in their sport experienced better mental health. But if these aspects were missing, athletes’ mental health was poorer, showing how important creating the right environment is, regardless of the activity.
Finding ways to give individuals more choices and helping them to develop relationships with others might be important for coaches, exercise instructors, and even gym buddies so that people can better improve their mental health through the exercise they’re doing. The activity itself might not predict the mental health benefits—but the way people feel while doing it does.
So is it better to exercise alone, or in a group? In practice, there is some evidence that group-based activities might be more beneficial for mental health. But the reason a person is exercising, and the environment they’re exercising in, are just as important. Put simply, choosing an activity you love—whether it’s because you feel good at it, or it allows you to be part of a community—will bring the best mental health boost.
is a senior lecturer in sport coaching at Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom. This article was originally published on The Conversation.