5 Ways Exercise Improves Mental Health

Exercising leads to several beneficial changes in your brain. Numerous experimental and clinical studies have shown the beneficial impact of physical exercise and physical activity on psychological wellbeing and brain functioning. Exercise can reduce depression and anxiety; improve your self-esteem, reduce cognitive decline, and it can allow you to socialise while having fun.

What is the difference between physical exercise and physical activity?

It is important to differentiate between physical activity and physical exercise. 

Physical activity: According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), physical activity refers to “any bodily movement produced by the skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure”.  In other words, physical activity is any motor behaviour for example daily activities.

Physical exercise: Physical exercise on the other hand is “planned, structured, repetitive and there is a goal that includes the improvement or maintenance of one or more components of one or more components of physical fitness”.

Here are 5 ways exercise can improve your mental health:

  • Exercise Can Reduce Depression

A great number of studies show that exercise cause changes in the levels of neurotransmitters in your brain such as serotonin and beta-endorphins. Exercise can therefore have great psychological benefits for your wellbeing.  A 2018 study reported depression to be the most common mental illness and is suggested to be the second leading cause of disease by 2020. It was indicated that individuals that exercise regularly were less depressed than individuals than those who do not. It has therefore been suggested that exercise can prevent and treat depression.  A 2018 critical review suggests that exercise can reduce depression and have an antidepressant effect.  For instance, they wanted to determine whether exercise is effective as an adjunct to antidepressant therapy in reducing depressive symptoms in older people. Patients were either assigned to exercise classes or health education talks for 10 weeks. After 10 weeks, the results showed that the exercise group experienced a greater than 30% decline in depression.

  • Regular Exercise Can Reduce Anxiety Symptoms

Anxiety disorders are a group of mental disorders that are characterised by feelings of worries about future events and often these feelings can cause physical symptoms, some of them include fast heart rate, feeling tense, constant worry, headaches and muscle tightness or body aches. In other words your body is in a state of emergency readiness and or become stress response hyper-stimulated. The hyperstimulation can lead your muscles to remain tense and tight.  Importantly, you might have heard that exercise can reduce anxiety, but it is important to acknowledge that rigorous exercise, or acute aerobic exercise can promote increase in anxiety severely. For instance, the aim of a 2018 study was to verify the acute effects of aerobic exercise on the symptoms of anxiety. The findings showed that that acute effects of exercise increased anxiety immediately. However, the study emphasises that after 12 training sessions, the participants showed decreased anxiety symptoms. In other words, regular exercise can reduce anxiety levels.  

  • Exercise is Great for Your Self Esteem

Regular physical exercise may also be associated with higher self-esteem. In simpler words, self-esteem is defined as your opinion of yourself and abilities through perceptions of self-efficacy, physical competence and physical acceptance. Interestingly, a 2018 study with breast cancer patients assessed the impact of physical activity program on self-esteem. The women were allocated to two groups; the experimental group participated in physical activity for 12 weeks, and the control group did not participate in any activities. The results of the study suggested that the group that participated in physical activity showed improved self-esteem and physical self-perception.

  • Exercise Improves Cognitive Abilities

Studies show that exercise can reduce inflammation and stimulate chemicals that have an impact on brain cells and their health. It can also have a positive influence on the growth of new blood vessels, and the abundance and survival of new brain cells. Overall, this can improve your concentration and thinking abilities. For instance, a recent critical review of 39 studies, investigated whether exercise is effective in improving cognitive function in individuals over the age of 50.  The analysis indicated that 36 studies provide the evidence for improvement of cognitive functioning due to exercise that combine both aerobic and resistance exercise of minimum moderate intensity. Nevertheless, exercise improves your sleep, mood and reduces stress and anxiety which all are important for your cognitive abilities. 

  • Exercise is a Great Way to Socialise and Have Fun!

Exercise is also very fun and social. If you spend the majority of your day by yourself, exercising can be a great way to socialise and work out. You can sign up for some group exercises at the gym with your friends on a Sunday instead of going to the cinema, or go for long walks and chat away!