The power of exercise to boost mental healthPosted on: November 10, 2023
by Sarah Harrop
Moving around more not only beefs up your body, but also your mind. Sarah Harrop takes a look at how being active helps our psychological wellbeing, helping us to stave off anxiety and depression, and bolster our self-image.
What are the mental health benefits and effects of exercise?
There’s a wealth of scientific evidence to show that regular exercise and physical activity can enhance our health and happiness, improving our quality of life and helping us to fight mental health problems.
When we move more, our bodies release ‘feel-good’ hormones known as endorphins that can improve mental wellbeing and mood, and boost our energy levels. But exercise can be much more than a short-lived pick-me-up. The benefits of regular physical activity for mental health run much deeper, and can:
- improve self-esteem and confidence – being more active tends to make people feel better about themselves as they increase their physical skills and meet their goals
- help us to sleep better, by making us physically tired
- manage mental health conditions such as stress, anxiety, or intrusive and racing thoughts – doing something physical releases stress hormones including cortisol, which helps us to manage stress
- calm and re-focus the mind, especially when we are angry, frustrated or sad. Being physically active gives people something to focus on, and can be a positive coping strategy for difficult times
- boost social contact by offering new ways to get together with family and friends and to meet like-minded people
- reduce the risk of depression – studies have shown that doing regular physical activity can reduce the likelihood of experiencing the symptoms of depression
- stave off cognitive decline and mental illness – for example, physical exercise is a protective factor for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
How exactly does physical activity benefit our mental health?
There’s plenty of scientific evidence showing that physical exercise can change the expression of various genes within the human brain. This causes changes to both the brain’s function and its actual structure (a process known as neuroplasticity) which has positive effects on our cognitive functioning (brain power) and wellbeing.
One review article of the field has found that physical exercise, here defined as planned, structured, repetitive exercise with the goal of improving physical fitness, has been shown in human studies to:
- Increase the volume of the brain’s grey matter in the frontal lobe – the part of the brain responsible for control over the way you think, how you move and how you remember things, social skills and behaviour.
- Boost the volume of grey matter in the hippocampus – the part of the brain involved in storing long-term memories, spatial processing and navigation.
- Raise brain levels of neurotrophic factors: biomolecules that support the growth, survival and differentiation of our brain cells.
- Increase blood flow to the cerebrum (thanks to exercise increasing heart rate), delivering more oxygen to brain tissues and reducing muscle tension. This can reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, dysfunctional and psychotic behaviours, hostility, tension, phobias and headaches.
- Change the structure of the cerebrum, increasing levels of neurotransmitters (brain signalling chemicals) like serotonin and beta-endorphins, which boosts positive factors including assertiveness, confidence, emotional stability, cognitive functioning and self-control.
- Improve academic achievement, especially in children.
- Strengthen cognitive abilities, i.e. learning and memory, processes linked with attention and executive functions (organising, prioritising, and taking action to begin tasks).
The study findings also showed that physical activity was linked with higher self-esteem, both directly and indirectly. That’s because if we perceive ourselves to have a good physical fitness level, then that is directly related to a more positive body image and higher self-esteem.
What is the best physical activity for mental health?
It’s clear we should move more if we want to improve our mental health. But what types of physical activity do health professionals recommend as being the best for our psychological wellbeing?
The science shows that aerobic exercise like running, cycling and swimming has differing effects on cognitive functioning and wellbeing to so-called ‘anaerobic’ muscle-building exercises, such as lifting weights.
There is a robust body of research showing that regular aerobic exercise over several months at medium to high intensity is linked with powerful structural and functional changes in the brain which improve cognitive function. Making exercise a long-term habit over a period of months as opposed to a few days can also markedly reduce anxiety and depression, research shows.
Even anaerobic exercise activities where there is rhythmic abdominal breathing and repetitive movements, such as yoga, can positively affect mood.
How much exercise should we be doing to keep healthy and happy?
Any physical activity is good for us, as many public healthcare messages will tell us. NHS physical activity guidelines suggest that people should focus on exercise that they enjoy, because that way we are more likely to stick at it.
But how hard do we need to work to stay mentally fit and well? Will a stroll around the park cut it, or do we need to be doing an hour at the gym every day? Public health services, including the NHS and the US National Institutes for Health (NIH.gov), as well as the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend that adults aged 18 to 64 should aim for about 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity each week or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (eg aerobic exercise like running, cycling or swimming) throughout the week. For further health benefits, adults should increase their moderate intensity exercise to 300 minutes per week and include activities to strengthen muscles, such as carrying heavy shopping.
Different activity levels can actually provide different beneficial effects, research shows. For example, one study showed that moderate intensity exercise is related to better working memory and cognitive flexibility, while high-intensity exercise has benefits on the speed at which our brains can process information.
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