How Exercise Can Improve Mental Health

Physical activity is associated with numerous health benefits such as decreasing the risk of coronary heart disease, some cancers, hypertension and diabetes and there is also mounting evidence that is it vital for psychological health and wellbeing. Clinical and epidemiological studies have shown that physical inactivity has been associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety and that exercise can be an effective treatment of mental health conditions and diseases.
Some of the key psychological benefits of regular physical activity include:
• Increased alertness, attention and concentration
• Reduces the symptoms of anxiety and depression
• Improves self-esteem and confidence
• Improves memory and cognitive functioning
• Improve sleep quality and sleep regulation
• Reduction in the risk and/or a therapeutic tool in the treatment of neurogenerative diseases such as Alzheimers and Parkinsons Disease

So how exactly does exercise improve psychological health? There are a few different theories to explain this…
The first is that exercise can promote neurogenesis and brain plasticity which means there is production in neurons in the brain which support cognitive function. Stress, depression and ageing can inhibit this process so exercise-induced neurogenesis is an important factor for good mental health. Physical activity has also been shown to release neurotransmitters and endorphins in the brain which can stimulate anti-anxiety effects. Endorphins can be described as a “natural painkiller” as it induces the euphoric effect which we usually feel following a bout of exercise. As exercise also has a positive effect on maintaining a healthy body weight, body composition and an increase in physical fitness, this can have a positive on an individual’s mental health as it can increase self-confidence and self-esteem. This is also positively related to forming and maintaining bonds with significant others in your life whether it be your spouse, children, friends or work colleagues.
As little as five minutes of aerobic exercise can begin to stimulate these anti-anxiety effects and the higher the intensity of the exercise, the greater the positive effects. This means you can start nice and easy by going for a walk or a bike ride and as you progress in fitness and confidence you can mix up the routine by trying to add some HIIT training to your work out. This will stress the physiological systems of the body for an extra boost of exercise induced benefits! Being involved in a team sport or exercising with your friends can encourage good mental health as it can help to develop friendships and the social engagement may decrease feelings of loneliness which may be typical of mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety.
Exercising at a moderate to high intensity is also the case for resistance exercise as studies have shown that a progressive resistance weight training program is more beneficial compared to that of a lower intensity. A program inclusive of aerobic and resistance exercises completed three to four times per week at moderate to high intensity for at least 30 minutes in duration is an ideal start for an individual seeking psychological health improvement. If you have lack experience with resistance training it is best to seek advice from a qualified exercise professional to ensure good technique and appropriateness of each exercise as it can be hard to know where to start!
Exercise is quickly becoming an important feature in the treatment of mental health conditions. A qualified exercise professional can assist in developing an effective, individualised exercise program as a part of a structured intervention depending on the client’s specific requirements.

Brittany Farmer
B.Sc (Exercise & Sport Science)