Can exercise improve your mental health?

Getting active can help boost your mood, calm you down, and potentially even prevent depression. Accredited Exercise Physiologist Jacinta Brinsley explains.

Written by Jacinta Brinsley

Globally, over 1.1 billion people meet the criteria for a diagnosable mental illness such as depression or anxiety. In Australia, an estimated 45% of us will experience a mental health condition in our lifetimes, according to the Australian National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing.

As a society, we often don’t think about taking care of our mental health in the same way we do our physical health. This is starting to change, particularly as more and more research shows we can influence our mental health through exercise.

Exercise: nature’s mood booster

Many research studies have shown that exercise is beneficial for our mental health in a number of ways. Exercise has been found to have acute benefits on mood – think of that ‘runner’s high’ feeling we get just after we finish a workout.

It doesn’t have to be intense, sweat-inducing exercise either. Studies have reported positive effects from light and moderate intensity exercise too. Even short bouts of just 10 minutes at a time may be effective for improving mood. Now that’s something we can do on our lunch break!

Everyone can experience these positive effects. Not only does exercise help reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress in people who have a diagnosed mental disorder - it can also benefit the mental wellbeing of healthy people. It can also be very helpful for reducing stress and boosting the moods of people experiencing a physical health condition (like cancer or diabetes). There’s no one that exercise doesn’t work on!

What’s more, exercise may also have a protective effect on our mental health. A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that regular exercise can help prevent future depression.

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.
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Written by Jacinta Brinsley

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