Putting on running shoes

The benefits of exercise on mental health

Exercising isn't just about improving our physical health. Consultant sports psychiatrist Dr Amit Mistry outlines the benefits it can have on our mental well-being, from combating stress to boosting brain power.

The latest scientific research points to moderate levels of exercise being a ‘miracle drug’, not just for physical health, but for mental health, too. Interestingly, studies monitoring people over time show that those with lower fitness levels experience higher levels of depression and anxiety.

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Last month the World Health Organisation (WHO) updated their global physical activity guidelines. In brief, any form of movement is better than nothing; logically the most sedentary amongst us have the most to gain. 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.

In particular, there has been a growing nationwide narrative specifying how integral exercise has been for maintaining personal mental health during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Discover even more of our fitness and nutrition guides, from how to workout at home, what to eat before you exercise and our review of the best fitness trackers.

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6 ways that exercise benefits your mental health

1. Self-esteem

Physical activity boosts 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!

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 and walking. These moments can help to reduce stress, and help you manage stressful situations in a more productive way.

Yoga for mental health

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 study.

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.

Exercise for boosting brain power

Everything in moderation…

In the wise words of Hippocrates, ‘Everything in excess is opposed to nature.’ In rare circumstances, exercise can slowly transform from a healthy, recreational hobby to that of a compulsive, behavioural addiction. Those affected may express severe guilt when not exercising and will forgo food or social events to train. Exercise addiction tends to be particularly problematic in those experiencing eating disorders, making their illness harder to treat.

You can learn more about this issue through BEAT charity resources and anyone can access help through local GP services.

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Exercise as a key lifestyle factor plays an important role in optimising our mental health. Public health messaging on this topic needs to be balanced and ensure that it can be safe, accessible and appealing to all. 

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This article was reviewed on 20 May 2021.
Dr Amit D Mistry is a consultant sports psychiatrist, author and mental health advisor to Oxford University Sport. He is a frontline NHS clinician working in eating disorders. You can follow him on @DrAMistryPsych.
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