How does it work?
Exercise can affect your mental health in many ways. Here are a few things that might be going on in your brain:
- Exercise triggers the release of noradrenaline which wakes up the brain and gets it going.
- Dopamine gets a boost, improving mood, feelings of wellness and motivation, and jump-starting our attention system.
- Serotonin also increases. This acts on the limbic system, improving how we perceive and regulate our emotions.
- Exercise promotes BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor), which protects our neurons (nerve cells in the brain) against cortisol in areas that control mood, such as the hippocampus.
- Getting active can boost our self-esteem (a component of depression), thanks to norepinephrine and also because we feel a sense of accomplishment.
- When you exercise in groups, you experience social connection and a sense of community.
How much and what types of exercise?
The best exercise is the kind of exercise that you enjoy doing, that you can maintain and that has your body’s longevity in mind. Different types of exercise may bring about different responses, both physically and mentally.
While no one type of exercise is better than the other, we should ideally aim for a balanced exercise routine. This means a combination of resistance training, where we’re strengthening our muscles and joints under load, and aerobic training, where our cardiorespiratory system is challenged.
Activities such as team sports, cycling, aerobic exercise and gym workouts have the highest associations with good mental health, according to a large observational study published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal in 2018. Resistance training has a significant impact on reducing depressive symptoms when done for bouts of 45 minutes or less.
There’s currently a rising popularity in mindful exercise, such as yoga and Pilates, and these can also be great choices to add to your exercise routine. Studies have suggested both may help reduce symptoms of depression.
How much exercise should you aim for? The Lancet study suggested that exercising for 30-60 minutes, three to five times per week, is associated with better mental health. Exercise is particularly beneficial as a treatment for mental health when supervised by a health professional with specific training in exercise prescription, like an exercise physiologist.
An exercise physiologist’s advice
Here are a few tips for getting started.
- Schedule exercise into your diary. Having an exercise routine can help build feelings of stability and consistency, key factors for maintenance.
- Something is better than nothing! Start small and build it up. Set goals that you can measure, don’t take too long to achieve and most of all, are realistic.
- Try to increase your incidental exercise. These are simple ways to move more throughout your day, like parking further away, getting off the bus a stop earlier, taking the stairs or walking on your lunch break.
- Have a balanced exercise diet. It doesn’t need to be all weights or all cardio - you can mix and match to suit the time you have available, your location and your mood. Sometimes 15 minutes of yoga or stretching at home might be exactly what you need.
- See an exercise professional. It’s worth the investment to see someone who can prescribe clinical exercise tailored exactly to your body, your lifestyle and your goals. Plus, we help motivate you and keep you accountable, and celebrate all the wins along the way with you.
MORE: Can exercise help prevent depression? New research