The Benefits of Exercise on Mental Health

Our mental health is fundamental to our overall sense of well-being.

The World Health Organisation defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his/her community”.

So, when you have good mental health, you are resilient and can cope with life; it’s ups and downs. It’s essential to maintain this mental resilience as best as you can. Engaging regularly in activities that achieve this is vital to your health and well-being.

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It’s normal to experience fluctuations in your mood from time to time. You can have a whole range of emotions even in one day; difficult ones and the welcomed pleasant ones. It’s when we have bad moods for much of the time or feel difficult feelings like sadness, angry or hopelessness for prolonged periods that a mental health condition may be present.

Prevalence of Mental Health issues

So many people really struggle with their mental health each and every day. Some are diagnosed with a mental health condition like depression or anxiety. It’s estimated that 12% of Australians fit this category. 

However, there are considerably more of us who may not meet the mental ill health criteria, but who find daily life problematic, to the point it significantly impacts the quality of their lives.

Generally speaking, the way we manage these symptoms determines how our overall state of mental health will be.

In the health area we value the importance of taking care of our mental health in the same way we do our physical health. There’s an abundance of research proving that exercise can positively impact our mental health.

Exercise and Mental Health

Research clearly demonstrates that exercise is beneficial for our mental health. There is a strong correlation between exercise and good mental health.  It reduces symptoms of depression, stress, insomnia and anxiety, as well as boosting self-esteem. 

Numerous studies have found that just 10 minutes of exercise can improve our mood and help avoid a worsening of symptoms. So can light to moderate activity, which is good news for those of us who dislike intense, sweaty exercise sessions. It is recommended though, that if we want to experience all of the benefits of exercise, we need to be active on most, preferably all, days of every week. 

The Health Department of Australia Guidelines states that we engage in 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both moderate and vigorous activity. This needs to include both aerobic and resistance training, as well as balance and flexibility activities enable an excellent exercise routine. 

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The best type of exercise for you is the one you enjoy and do regularly.

How exercise helps Mental Health 

The main reason exercise benefits our mental health is that it triggers the body to release a cocktail of feel good chemicals, namely hormones like endorphins, and neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. 

Interestingly, exercise helps regulate the same neurotransmitters that antidepressants target. When you exercise, the body also decreases the stress hormones like cortisol. 

So, this dual effect contributes to a sense of feeling good and positive- improved mood and a general state of wellbeing. 

Endorphins also function as the body’s natural analgesics or painkillers so can help manage pain being felt by a person.

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More recent research has found that when we exercise mindfully we regulate our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) back to parasympathetic (rest and digest). This allows our body to further regulate our stress hormones, such as cortisol, and reduce inflammation, which has been found to be a key predictor of depression/anxiety .

Looking at the effects of exercise on mental health in more detail:

– Releases norepinephrine, which stimulates the brain in helpful ways, including improving self-esteem and a sense of achievement.

– Boosts dopamine, which  improves mood, feelings of wellness, motivation and our capacities for attention

– Increases serotonin acts thereby regulating our emotions

– Enhances BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor). This protects our neurons against cortisol in areas that control mood, such as the hippocampus

– Social connection and a sense of community when we exercise in groups.

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The best exercise for you is the one you enjoy and do regularly.