7 Benefits of Exercise on Mental Health

The latest scientific research points to moderate levels of exercise being a ‘miracle drug’, not just for physical health, but for mental health, too.

What are the mental health benefits of exercise?

Interestingly, studies monitoring people over time show that those with lower fitness levels experience higher levels of depression and anxiety.

In keeping with these new studies, the World Health Organisation (WHO) updated their global physical activity guidelines; which in brief, highlights that any form of movement is better than none. These guidelines recommend that all adults should be aiming to do 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity, or 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity, aerobic exercise every week, or an equivalent combination of the two.

One of the main objectives of Gift Fit is to help people gift new fitness and well-being experiences to each other, and discover fun new ways to stay healthy and active.

Since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, there has been a growing narrative around people wanting to take up some form of exercise, to stay as healthy, not just for their physical fitness, but also for the mental health challenges that many began to face.

Seven ways that exercise benefits your mental health

1. Self-esteem

Physical activity boosts our self-esteem, especially when new personal skills are acquired (‘self-mastery’). This has consistently been fed back from self-report questionnaire data and can be a great distraction technique after a day of back-to-back virtual meetings, or a day in the office!

2. Stress management

Within the last decade, there is greater societal awareness of ‘mindfulness’, encouraging our full presence within the moment and being able to make detached observations about our environment. These mindful movement techniques can be cultivated through exercises such as yoga, swimming, walking, or high intensity classes such as boxing – and can help to reduce stress, as well as helping you manage stressful situations in a more productive way.

3. Sleep

Professional sporting outfits understand how poor sleep impacts on performance and recovery. It also has an impact on your mental health, too. Luckily, exercising can help you to sleep better. Studies have demonstrated how different forms of exercise can improve sleep efficiency (percentage of time spent asleep whilst in bed) – just make sure to avoid intense exercising close to bedtime. 

4. Cognition

Exercise can improve working memory and ‘higher-order’ (executive) cognitive functions – a key modifiable, lifestyle risk factor reducing the chances of dementia. Obviously we can’t change our genetic risks, but there’s still a lot we can do to prevent this neurodegenerative illness. More scientific information on modifiable lifestyle risk factors in dementia can be accessed through Prof Gill Livingston’s work.

5. Depression

Exercise can be a potentially powerful antidepressant, regardless of depression intensity (Schuh et al. 2016). It’s been shown to work well for older adults doing group exercises, reinforcing the benefits of socialising as we age.

Despite these clear benefits, the experience of depression can directly impact motivation and energy levels. Therefore, this may not be a go-to strategy for all. Also, non-regular exercisers and those with physical health conditions may require medical clearance to ensure their safety.

6. Brain biology booster

The role of exercise on brain mechanics and mental illness remains an enigma, although researchers have identified some of these key mechanisms. For example, exercise enhances key brain connections, signalling pathways and blood flow patterns. Also, it can reduce inflammation and rejuvenate brain cells (neurogenesis) and hormones.

7. Inclusivity

Being part of a group or community, with like-minded people, can have a huge impact on how you feel. Fitness and exercise should be inclusive and adaptive boxing and yoga classes are now being promoted to a wider audience in the hope they will encourage those with physical and mental disabilities to join in person, or virtually.

“Exercise is the key not only to physical health but also peace of mind” – Nelson Mandela

The benefits of exercise are clear for people to see and understand. And as more awareness grows around the connection between mental health and fitness, there could be more discussion around the possibility of GP’s and other medical professionals prescribing exercise classes as part of a patient’s care. This may not only lead to less reliance on medication, but also introduce new experiences that have additional cognitive benefits through new movements and task related goals.

Mental health and well-being are now very much part of the public conversation and that’s something Dorset Mind has been working towards for many years. With more and more people realising the benefits that exercise can bring, hopefully initiatives such as Gift Fit will encourage a new wave of social prescribing and endorphin enducing activities.

Visit Gift Fit to see what experiences are available in your area.

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