The father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, famously said: ‘If you are in a bad mood, go for a walk. If you are still in a bad mood, go for another walk.’
If you’ve experienced a runner’s high or that sense of accomplishment that comes from smashing a morning workout, you’ll know what he was talking about. But we don’t just have anecdotal evidence (and the wise words of an old Greek guy) to go on; decades of scientific research proves the various mental health benefits of exercise.
6 mental health benefits of physical activity
So, what are these benefits? And, perhaps more importantly, how can you start experiencing them? Funny you should ask...
1. Exercise boosts mood
Exercise releases endorphins, which reduce pain sensations and have the happy side-effect of boosting mood. This emotional pick-me-up is typically known as a runner's high, but you don't actually need to pound the pavement to experience it; any type of moderate exercise can do the trick.
But while numerous scientific studies seemingly confirm the mood-boosting power of exercise, one question casts some doubt on the validity of the assertion: does being physically active improve emotional wellbeing, or is it simply the case that we are less physically active when we feel down?
A 2019 study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health sought to put the issue to bed. ‘We wanted to see if there might be a causal connection, in either direction, between physical activity and depression,’ says study author Karmel Choi. ‘Does physical activity protect against depression? Or does depression simply reduce physical activity? Our study allowed us to untangle those questions in a powerful new way using genetic data.’
Using data from two large genetic databases that included hundreds of thousands of people, Choi and her team applied a technique known as Mendelian randomisation (a method of using measured variation in genes to examine the causal effect of external factors in observational studies). Using genetic variations between people as a kind of natural experiment allowed them to better see how exercise affects depression, and vice versa.
Their conclusion? Running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of depression, independent of genetic factors.
2. Exercise supports brain health
While the concept of mental health can feel a little abstract and the idea of ‘good’ mental health varies from person to person, the notion that our brains need to be healthy in order to feel focused, logical and sharp is less opaque.
When it comes to optimum brain health, exercise is a huge contributing factor. That’s because physical activity produces elevated levels of something known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). A vital protein associated with neuron growth and development that improves key cognitive functions such as memory, concentration and decision-making, the amount of BDNF present in your brain is one of the best overall indicators of brain heath available.
Studies have pointed to a link between exercise and cognitive performance for years, with many focused on the benefits of BDNF production from birth to old age, with multiple studies finding physical activity to be particularly helpful in slowing the onset of degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. It’s even thought that it’s possible that expectant mothers who train can positively impact the brain health of their gestating babies. A 1996 study, for example, showed that by five years old, children of mothers who regularly exercised during pregnancy scored better on tests of general intelligence and oral language skills.
3. Exercise reduces anxiety and depression
Anxiety and depression are typically caused by neurotransmitter dysfunctionality, especially with regards to serotonin. Physical activity improves the functionality and regulation of these neurotransmitters, resulting in increased serotonin levels. The happy hormone reduces feelings of anxiety and depression and can also help regulate appetite and sleep. It can even make you more agreeable. So, the more you have, the better you feel and less likely you are to let anything get in the way of that good feeling!
The good news? Research suggests you just need to do 30-minutes of moderate cardio exercise (anything you like: running, cycling, swimming... dancing!) to up your serotonin production and make it easier to swat away negative thoughts before they get a chance to sink their claws into you.
4. Exercise is a stress reliever
All of the above benefits can contribute towards making you feel less stressed out, but there’s a specific de-stressing benefit of exercise that’s particularly effective.
The HPA axis is the interaction between the hypothalamus (maintains internal balance), pituitary gland (helps regulate growth, blood pressure and reproduction), and adrenal glands (helps regulate metabolism, immune system, and blood pressure). It plays a massively important role in the stress response and exercise can have a positive impact on it, particularly in its production of the stress hormone cortisol.
A 2014 study got men who exercised regularly and sedentary men to undertake potentially stressful tasks. Following the tasks, when compared the men who exercise, the sedentary men had significantly elevated levels of cortisol. And this isn’t just good news for mental health. Elevated levels of cortisol can encourage your body to hold onto its fat stores, making it harder to lose weight, so working out really is a feel-good win-win!
5. Exercise boosts self-esteem
Speaking of weight loss, by minimising body image issues and instilling a sense of pride and achievement, exercise is great for your self worth. Studies show that because mobility and exercise improve your general adequacy and efficiency in all sorts of real-life situations, from kicking a ball back to kids in the park to running for the bus without looking like you’re about to die when you catch it (or missing it entirely), being fitter makes us feel better day-to-day
It is important to note, however, that if your primary motivation for working out is to attain some kind of idealised body type then it’s less likely your self esteem will get much of a boost. Exercise as a form of self-care that helps you better interact with and manipulate the world around you is what truly instills self-worth.
6. Exercise makes you happier
A hormone naturally produced in the body, serotonin is like some kind of wonderdrug. It promotes restful sleep, helps regulate appetite, makes it easier to take on new information and recall it later, and just generally makes you feel great.
There are a few lifestyle factors that can encourage our bodies to produce serotonin. Exercise is one of the quickest and most effective, with 30 minutes of moderate cardio exercise all that’s required to experience the benefits. You don’t even need to do a ‘proper’ workout. Start your mornings with half hour of dancing like no-one’s watching and you’ll set yourself up for a happier (and healthier) day ahead!