Experts in psychology and exercise science at Charles Sturt University say scientific evidence confirms that exercise improves our mental health.
By Associate Professor Gene Hodgins in the Charles Sturt School of Psychology, and Lecturer in exercise science Dr Tegan Hartmann in the Charles Sturt School of Allied Health, Exercise and Sports Sciences.
Given everything that’s happened in Australia during the past two years (bushfires, COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns, floods, mice plagues), National Mental Health Month this October is too important to ignore.
More people have been getting outside during the COVID-19 lockdowns to break the boredom and stay fit, and many are patiently looking forward to even more activity as lockdowns are lifted.
So, now more than ever is a good time to explore the significant positive effects that exercise and our physical health can have on our mental health and wellbeing.
Scientific evidence confirms that exercise improves our mental health.
How does exercise contribute?
- Exercise pumps blood to the brain, which can help you to think more clearly
- Exercise releases chemicals like endorphins and serotonin in your brain that improve your mood and the parts of the brain responsible for memory and learning
- Regular exercise decreases systemic inflammation
- Exercise increases the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory
- Exercise also increases the connections between the nerve cells in the brain, which improves your memory and helps protect your brain against injury and disease
- Exercise can also get you out in the world, help to reduce any feelings of loneliness and isolation, and put you in touch with other people.
What does this mean?
Here is the great news – as little as 30 minutes of moderate to intensive physical activity a day can:
- Reduce your stress and symptoms of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, and help with recovery from mental health issues
- Improve your sleep, which is important in so many ways
- Help you to feel better – even if you’re already feeling okay
- Reduces the risk of cognitive illnesses like dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease) and Parkinson's disease, and many other lifestyle-related conditions such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease
- Is an effective intervention if you have existing mental health issues.
What sort of exercise?
Your 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day can include aerobic activities like walking, jogging, swimming, cycling, and dancing.
Targeting the national physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise, you can make up your 30 minutes over the day by combining shorter 10-to-15-minute sessions if you like.
And here is a mental health ‘hack’ – practising mindfulness while doing your exercise can additionally reduce your stress and improve your mental health.
Active forms of yoga incorporate mindfulness with movement and have been proven effective in reducing symptoms of depression.
Easier said than done!
Some people can struggle finding the motivation to exercise, so to help with this, think about ways you can make exercise part of your daily routine and lifestyle.
Choose something you enjoy and ask your friends or family to help motivate you and to keep you on track. If you own a dog or have children, take them for walks in your local area.
Start with small goals and seek the guidance of an exercise professional if you are not sure where to start.
You can also combine your exercise routine with a healthy diet to boost your motivation and energy for exercise.
Physical health is more than just exercise
Research shows our overall physical health is closely linked to our mental health.
Dr Hartmann’s research* with colleagues at Charles Sturt found that six weeks of moderate intensity aerobic exercise increases aerobic fitness and reduces symptom severity in those currently undergoing management of a mental health disorder.
This research suggests there may be a physiological link between aerobic capacity, symptom severity, inflammation and obesity, however further research is required to confirm this.
The ‘Big Three’
Exercise contributes to the ‘Big Three’ of physical strategies we can use to improve our mental health – physical activity, eating well, and getting a good night’s sleep.
Looking after our physical and mental health is vital to our overall wellbeing.
This points to wider research that physical health problems significantly increase our risk of developing mental health problems, and vice versa.
We all feel the link between our physical and mental health in our everyday lives – anxiety causing headaches and stiff muscles; chronic stress making us more susceptible to colds and flu; lack of exercise or being stuck inside making us feel down and leading to poorer attention and concentration.
Even at a more biological level, we know that worrying can increase our heart rate and blood pressure.
This mind-body link is backed-up by evidence that shows:
- Nearly one-in-three people with a long-term physical health condition also has a mental health problem, most often depression or anxiety
- Depression increases the risk for many types of physical health problems, particularly long-lasting conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke
- People with a mental health problem are more likely to have a preventable physical health condition such as heart disease
- Four-out-of-five people living with mental illness also have a serious physical health condition
- People living with mental illness have poorer physical health
- Masterful/purposeful activities are not just pleasurable but can also lift our mood.
National Mental Health Month 2021 reminds us all that looking after our physical and mental health is vital to our overall wellbeing.