Seven ways physical activity can benefit mental health
Physical exercise is good for your physical health, but did you know it’s also great for
your mental health?
There are physical activity benefits for both mental illness prevention and treatment,
and it’s even beginning to be used as a mental health therapy.
“There’s emerging research showing an association between physical activity and avoiding developing depression later on in life,” says South Eastern Sydney Local Health exercise physiologist and Exercise and Sports Science Australia (ESSA) director Dr Simon Rosenbaum.
“If we can engage people in physical activity early, and they maintain that activity, then hopefully we can reduce the impact of depression and anxiety disorders later on in life.”
The physical exercise benefits for mental health can have impacts beyond the immediate release of ‘happy hormones’. “People are really quick to jump on the endorphin bandwagon,” says Dr Rosenbaum, “but I think the benefits are far greater than that.”
Engaging with your life
There are elements of doing exercise, such as its routine, which can help you get more from life. “If you’re experiencing poor mental health, and you’ve disengaged from work or your social situation, to simply have the structure of an exercise session and a routine can be really powerful in itself,” Dr Rosenbaum says. “Exercise can be a stepping stone to re-engaging with your life.”
Exercising can get you out amongst your community, and the social benefits are even greater if you exercise with friends or work colleagues.
Social connections are a proven protective factor against mental illness, so combining social life and exercise is a really good way to look after your wellbeing.
A sense of achievement
Exercise can boost self-esteem, creating a sense of pride in achieving your goals. It can also help boost your confidence by knowing you’re being pro-active about your health, whether that’s for physical reasons, prevention of mental health challenges or as a mental illness treatment.
Better quality sleep
“There’s a strong relationship between exercise and sleep, and there’s then a relationship between sleep and mental health,” says Dr Rosenbaum. Many who exercise regularly report the benefits of better quality sleep.
Promoting more wellbeing actions
Taking part in activities good for you encourages you to do more for your health, because you can feel the benefits. “If you’re feeling fitter, it can help reinforce that positive behaviour,” says Dr Rosenbaum.
Breaking the cycle
It’s hard to distinguish whether lifestyle habits cause mental health challenges or whether mental illness can cause physical health problems. Either way, there’s a strong link that needs to be changed.
“Those with mental illness are more likely to be obese, sedentary, avoiding social
situations and have a poor diet,” Dr Rosenbaum explains, “and exercise can play a really important role in breaking that vicious cycle.”
Even a little bit helps
While some mental health conditions provide safe exercise challenges, experts believe most people can do some form of helpful physical activity. “Even small increases to daily activity, like getting up off your chair and sitting back down ten times can become a structured program with goals for someone who hasn’t had any structure before, and it can be really powerful,” Dr Rosenbaum says.
Engaging in physical activity doesn’t need to be extreme as any movement is going to give you some benefits. The most important thing is to take a realistic, sustainable approach that fits your individual needs.
For more information about the exercise you can do to benefit your mental health: Black Dog Institute fact sheet
This article was provided by SuperFriend, a national mental health foundation that helps workplaces promote and support improved mental health and wellbeing for their employees.