As much as mental health professionals stress the importance of exercise for the betterment of mental health, it’s useful to understand that the relationship between the two is deeply rooted in our physiology and psychology. What that means is that physical exercise is a fundamental component of mental wellbeing.
As a clinical educator, with a background in psychiatry, I wanted to write an article to explain the relationship between physical activity and mental health, reflecting on 5 ways exercise and sport can improve our mental wellbeing, and providing tips to optimise its effects.
So, let’s get into it!
What science tells us about exercise and mental health
The connection between exercise and mental health is well-supported by a wealth of scientific research, and it’s shown to involve a complex interplay of physiological, psychological, and social factors.
Here are some of the key aspects that explain the positive effects of exercise on mental health.
Physical activity, especially aerobic exercises like running or cycling, stimulates the release of neurotransmitters in the brain, such as endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. These chemicals play essential roles in regulating our mood, emotions, and feelings of overall well-being.
Exercise can help reduce the levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, in the body. Regular physical activity can act as a natural stress-reliever, promoting relaxation and improving resilience to life’s stressors.
Physical activity has been shown to enhance brain plasticity, which refers to the brain's ability to adapt and form new neural connections. This can lead to improved cognitive function and better emotional regulation.
Regular exercise has been associated with better cognitive function, memory, and attention. These cognitive improvements can positively impact how individuals perceive and manage stressors in their lives.
Engaging in regular physical activity can improve sleep quality as energy is expended. Better sleep is crucial for mental health, as it allows the brain and body to rest and recover effectively, leading to improved mood and overall well-being.
Participating in group exercises or team sports can provide social support and foster a sense of belonging, which are crucial for maintaining a healthy mental state. Social interaction and a supportive community can help alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Self-esteem and Body Image
Regular exercise can contribute to improved self-esteem and body image. Achieving fitness goals and feeling physically stronger can boost self-confidence and lead to a more positive self-perception.
Prevention of Mental Health Disorders
Research suggests that engaging in regular physical activity may reduce the risk of developing certain mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety.
What counts as physical activity?
Whether we spend the day sat on the sofa, or at a desk, or running a marathon, you could argue that we’re always ‘doing something’; we breathe, we blink, we reach for things. Being physically active, however, means less sitting down and more body movement.
Physical activity can be going for a stroll around your local park, taking the stairs up to the office instead of the lift, joining a local sports team, or going for a swim. It needn’t be a strenuous ordeal, just as long as you’re moving around.
5 tips to help you gain the mental health benefits of physical activity
1. Boosting decision-making and memory through a walking reset
Just as sleep helps us process our thinking, exercise helps clarify our thoughts and boost our thinking power. The hippocampus, the area associated with memory, is also shown to increase in size when exercise is consistently taken. Associations may be due to increased blood flow and release of various chemical exchanges, including release of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor.
For this boost, little and often is key. This may look like taking moderate exercise such as walking for 40 mins a day 3 times a week and gaining regular boosts of daily exercise by walking for a few minutes each half an hour (or just gaining passive exercise as frequently as you can).
2. Using mindfulness techniques during exercise to combat stress in the moment
Many activities can bring one to a ‘flow’ like state where they are completely immersed in the experience, like climbing, for instance. Through this, one may gain greater awareness of one’s surroundings and a heightened appreciation for living. Exercise here can form a type of moving meditation that notably reduces stress, or rather reframes the experience of stress, so you can continue your day more effectively.
Focus on sensation and physical body presence while in activity, or the mindful focus on the breath changing. When challenging thoughts or feelings come up, use the noting technique from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy; ‘noting’/acknowledging any thought or feeling, e.g. ‘There’s sadness again...’, and then returning to presence/breath focus. Extend your mindfulness to notice all sensations, what you hear, see, touch, smell, and taste.
Expanding creativity through connecting with nature
Getting outdoors for activity is thought to reset one’s attention, together with offering opportunities for awe. Essentially, the prior two benefits above are offered in an enhanced way by being in a natural setting. Theories link that the pre-frontal cortex benefits from some downtime, which is even more scarce to come by when we are forever online with our electronic devices. Our creativity can then be released again, even further refreshed by views of natural scenes.
Any avenue to combine nature with exercise may benefit, even looking outside a window at nature when exercising can augment benefits for the brain. When out on a walk or run see if you can find more natural routes- and if you can, keeping safety always first, ditch devices from time to time.
4. Building connection through group workouts and play
Exercise offers a base to share connection with others, whether in team bonding or making community links in a local exercise class. The value of social connection is known to boost wider wellbeing and benefit mental health. On a field or in a hall, forms of group activity often also enable a form of play- a critical base for child development, and a space equally beneficial to adults. Notably, committing to a group activity may make your exercise regime more sustainable in the long-term, through the power of group accountability.
Plan an exercise class or team sport and try to make it a routine to benefit from both exercise and social wellbeing. Choose exercise that brings joy, connecting with your own inner child as much as others in a group. Dancing around the living room also counts!
5. Increasing strides to enhance self-esteem and lower anxiety and depression
Running has been shown to be as effective as antidepressants for depression over 6 months. This may work through a combination of factors- changes to the brain, cortisol levels, a sense of confidence through behavioural change and achievement. A caution exists to balance aerobic workouts with rest; High intensity workouts can be shown to heighten cortisol in a way which, without recovery, could be counter beneficial. Equally one is not to exercise and negate other mental health/wellbeing recommendation especially when risk exists.
Increase into aerobic activities for a range of mental health benefits, but balance this with support from professionals – and ensure days are taken to rest.
While the benefits of exercise are apparent, it's important to note that the relationship between exercise and mental health is bidirectional. Meaning that, while exercise can positively impact mental health, people experiencing mental health challenges may find it more difficult to engage in physical activity regularly. In such cases, seeking professional support can be beneficial.
Regular exercise is just one piece of your unique puzzle. Mind has a great article on how to make physical activity work for those who experience extra challenges, such as disabilities.
Whichever way you choose to exercise, planning it for your mental wellbeing is as fundamental a purpose as for your physical fitness. Boosting cognition, creativity, and memory, and reducing anxiety, depression and stress. Exercise is a tool to connect with ourselves, one another and the world around us.
I hope to write further on this topic, as I build walking therapy into my clinical practice. For now, I am walking to collect my little one, with mindful pacing and my phone turned off.