The relationship between exercise and mental health
Research on the relationship between exercise and mental health has abounded in recent years, cementing the importance of physical activity for a positive outlook and a healthy mind.
In fact, plenty of studies show that exercise, when included in the treatment of mild to moderate depression, is as effective as antidepressants, without some of its debilitating side-effects. Moreover, 15 minutes of running per day can reduce the risk of major depression by 26%.
Even if you suffer from anxiety, exercise has an important role to play. Through the release of endorphins, your body experiences a boost of mental energy and euphoria, which can release the vice-like grip of tension and stress.
In this post, we examine the relationship between exercise and mental health in-depth and help you identify some of the best forms of exercise for better mental health. This is important, especially at a time when mental illnesses affect around one in five Australians in any year.
Exercise and mental health: The scientific explanation
When it comes to traditional forms of cardio and aerobic exercises including walking, jogging, swimming, and dancing, these activities increase blood circulation to the brain and through their effect on the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis, result in noticeable mood improvements.
Through the communication of the HPA axis and the amygdala – the fear and stress generator – the limbic system, which is responsible for moderating mood and motivation, and the hippocampus – tasked with regulating memory formation, mood, and motivation – exercise exerts its positive effects on the body and the mind.
Back to endorphins: These are the “feel good” chemicals that relieve pain and stress, whose production is triggered when we exercise. Beyond this, however, other neurotransmitters like dopamine, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BNDF), serotonin, and norepinephrine are also released during exercise and play an important role in mood regulation.
In fact, certain prescriptions target these specific chemicals to alleviate symptoms of mental health conditions.
General benefits of exercise for mental health
Beyond endorphins, exercise has a number of more ‘real-life’ benefits like social interaction, distraction, and self-efficacy that are truly beneficial if you’re grappling with mental health challenges. It also combats low-self esteem and improves cognitive function.
Moreover, the connection between exercise and mental health goes beyond alleviating symptoms of anxiety and depression – it has also been discovered that physical activity can be highly beneficial for individuals suffering from schizophrenia.
Specifically, it helps them overcome the potential ramifications of weight gain and obesity, which are side-effects of antipsychotic medication.
A recent study also confirmed that in addition to preventing obesity, schizophrenic patients also experienced increased fitness levels, exercise tolerance, energy levels, reduced blood pressure, and increased upper body and hand-grip strength through regular exercise.
The types of exercises that are beneficial for your mental health
While just about any type of exercise is beneficial for your mental health, there are certain activities that have been hailed as some of the best for giving your mind a boost.
Walking or running
Arguably one of the easiest and most convenient forms of exercise, walking and running are renowned for the “runner’s high” they produce, reducing stress and tension. It’s also a great time to process life events and other things on your mind with a little more space and freedom.
Yoga is a frequent topic of discussion when it comes to the connection between exercise and mental health and for good reason.
Not only does yoga stretch the body and release tension, but it also helps you be more present in your surroundings instead of ruminating and engaging in negative thinking. It’s also deeply connected to meditation, which is one technique recommended for people grappling with mental health challenges like anxiety.
Beyond improving your core strength and overall health, pilates also brings together exercise and mental health because it focuses strongly on the connection between the body and the mind.
The breathing and relaxation techniques used, in combination with mobilising your body, can improve your sleep and aid with stress-relief.
Combine exercise and mental health for a more positive outlook on life
Exercise and mental health go hand-in-hand – so much so, that it’s now one of the first recommendations mental health professionals make when they treat individuals for a variety of mental health conditions.
At onPsych, you can now receive personalised guidance on how to manage your mental health, including through telehealth sessions from the comfort of your home. Find out more today.