Even a Little Exercise Fights Obesity

Survey Shows 1 to 2 Days a Week of Exercise Has Benefits for Physical and Mental Health

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on November 06, 2009
From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 6, 2009 -- While frequent exercise is known to fight obesity and improve mental health, as little as 30 minutes of physical activity one or two days a week can have benefits, according to the 2009 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.

The Well-Being Index is based on nearly 288,000 phone interviews of people 18 and older. It shows the number of days a person exercises for at least 30 minutes is strongly connected with the likelihood of obesity:

  • Not exercising in a given week was associated with a 35% incidence of obesity.
  • Exercising for 30 minutes, 1-2 days a week, was associated with a 28% incidence of obesity

However, the survey also showed that those who exercised every day were slightly more likely to be obese (20%) than those who say they exercised five or six days (19%).

Gallup-Healthways analyst Brett W. Pelham, author of the 2009 report, tells WebMD in an email that "exercising several days a week seems about as good, and arguably is better, than exercising every day, especially when you consider return on investment."

The survey also looked at the connection between the number of days of exercise and quality of life; it included questions to determine if people felt they were struggling, suffering, or thriving in life. As little as a half-hour daily of exercise for one or two days seemed to help their self-perceptions.

People who exercised more frequently had a higher payoff in their evaluation-of-life response, according to the report. Once again, there was a substantial drop for those who exercised every day.

According to the Gallup survey report, the data cannot tell us whether exercise leads to high well-being or whether high well-being leads to exercise, but they do suggest that getting the maximum amount of exercise may not promote further gains in well-being.

Exercise and Emotional Health

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index also contains a measure of emotional health, based on 10 daily experiences, such as smiling or laughing a lot or being treated with respect the day before they were interviewed.

Those who didn't exercise at all earned a score of 74, compared to higher scores for those who worked out one or two days per week or more. Yet, for those who report having exercised every day, the survey showed slightly lower Emotional Health Index scores than those who say they exercised five to six days. Again, the score dropped for people who said they exercised seven days a week.

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index also examined depression and found it too was related to exercise. People who report not having exercised in the past week are almost twice as likely to have been diagnosed with depression as those who claim to have exercised five to six days, the report says.

People who reported exercising daily were more likely to report having been diagnosed with depression than those who exercised three to four days or five to six days in the previous week.

"One cannot say whether regular exercise reduces depression or whether depression reduces exercise," Pelham writes. "However, in the past decade, researchers have conducted experimental and prospective studies that followed depressed people over time. Such studies show exercise can ease feelings of depression and improve mood."

Pelham's report says an intense exercise regimen could be physiologically and psychologically taxing, because physical activity takes up considerable time and energy.

"Exercising without ever giving one's body time to rest may be less ideal than exercising five to six days per week," he writes.

"The findings not only support the notion that exercise may boost well-being, but they also suggest that it is not necessary to exercise every day of the week to reap meaningful physical and psychological benefits," says the report.

Show Sources


News release, Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.

Pelham, B. Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.

Brett W. Pelham, analyst, Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, email interview.

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