Exercise may not be everyone’s idea of a good time [raises hand], but it definitely has a positive impact on our mental well-being. Researchers from Oxford and Yale have discovered that physical activity can improve mental wellness even more than earning a higher income. Using data from 1.2 million people in the United States, the research, published in The Lancet, found that people who exercise reported one-and-a-half fewer poor mental health days each month than those who didn’t get much physical activity.

The data from this cross-sectional study was self-reported, so it may not be as accurate as a randomized control trial where the researchers are involved with facilitating every aspect. However, given the enormous sample size of more than one million people, the study provides valuable insight.

One of the primary aims of this research was to give us a better idea of the type and duration of exercise that promotes the greatest mental well-being. The authors hope that their findings will be used to prescribe personalized exercise recommendations to people, based on their abilities and needs. But before you sign up for a marathon (unless you’ve been training for one — in which case, do it!), there are a few interesting caveats from the study that will help us reap the maximum benefits from our next trip to the gym. Here are three helpful takeaways from the research:

Join a team

Of all the participants, those who played team sports enjoyed the highest levels of mental well-being. The authors note that these findings are in line with previous research showing that social activity promotes resilience to stress and reduces depression, as well as helping to minimize social withdrawal and feelings of isolation. Joining a team is also a great place to find your community, which comes with its own range of benefits, including social support and making meaningful connections with others.

Try mindful exercise

If joining your local soccer team or running club doesn’t sound appealing, the researchers also found that mindful exercises — like yoga and tai chi — are also associated with high levels of well-being. This is great news for people with sore joints or other limited mobility issues, because it provides them with an opportunity for some light movement without physical stress.

No need to overdo it

Yes, there can be too much of a good thing. Physical activity is great, but the study found that  the correlation between exercise and improved mental well-being was the greatest when people worked out for 45 minutes, three to five times a week. “Previously, people have believed that the more exercise you do, the better your mental health, but our study suggests that this is not the case,” Adam Chekroud, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University and co-author of the study said in a statement. So how much is too much? You may want to avoid vigorous exercise more than 23 times per month, or longer than 90 minutes per session, which was associated with decreased mental well-being, according to the researchers.

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  • Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D.

    Bioethicist and writer

    Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer specializing in health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. Previously she was the health and sex editor at SheKnows. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University and has written for print and online publications including The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe AtlanticRolling StoneSalon and Playboy, and has given a TEDX talk on The Golden Girls and bioethics.