How exercise has a positive affect on mental health

sport and mental health

Exercise is well known to stimulate the body to produce endorphins and enkephalins – the body’s natural feel-good hormones but how does exercise affect our mental health in the long-term?

I think we all know that an inactive lifestyle could contribute to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, certain types of cancer, osteoporosis, and generally can shorten life expectancy. But do you consider the contribution of physical exercise to your mental health and wellbeing? Maybe, maybe not.

Rates of depression and anxiety are at their highest recorded levels in the UK. Undoubtedly, many aspects of “modern life” which include the increasing social media demands we put on ourselves, long working weeks, poor diets, financial pressure and the demands on our image can contribute to this state.

However, inactivity is another key factor and is proving to be one of the biggest contributors. Poor lifestyle choices can create a spiral of negativity.

Most of us find that a walk in the sun or in the beautiful English countryside or that all in important trip to the gym improves our mood in the short term.

Small improvements in exercise levels or better nutrition creates a positive upward spiral and eventually becomes rewarding.

Exercise is well known to stimulate the body to produce endorphins and enkephalins – the body’s natural feelgood hormones which can help to manage our problems more effectively.

The simple act of focusing on exercise can give us a break from current concerns we may be experiencing. Furthermore, depending on the activity of course, people may benefit from a more calming approach to exercise to improve the mood and general health i.e. Yoga class. It is good practice to find the specific exercise type that works for you and what you enjoy.

Evidence suggests that exercise is not only necessary for the maintenance of good mental health, but it can be used to even treat chronic mental illness. [a recent study carried out by the Harvard TH chan school of public health identified that anything over 15 mins of steady activity per day can reduce the risk of depression by 26%.

It is becoming clearer that exercise reduces the likelihood of depression and also maintains positive mental health as we grow older especially in reducing the risks of dementia, anxiety, and even lowering the risks of cognitive issues in schizophrenia. But how?

The simple answer being, exercise directly affects the brain. Regular exercise promotes an improved blood supply that improves neuronal health by improving the delivery of oxygen and nutrients. The critical importance for mental health is the hippocampus—an area of the brain involved in memory, emotion regulation, and learning. Several lines of evidence is accumulating that many mental health conditions are associated with reduced neurogenesis in the hippocampus.

The evidence is particularly strong for depression as identified by the National institute of health. Mental ill-health is classified by a cognitive inflexibility that keeps us repeating certain negative behaviors, restricts our ability to process or even acknowledge new information, and reduces our ability to use what we already know to make positive changes. It is therefore plausible that exercise leads to better mental health in general, through its effects on systems that increase the capacity for mental flexibility. Studies have shown that three exercise training sessions per week can help control depression. The greater results achieved will be through consistency and longevity.

Studies have shown that three exercise training sessions per week can help control depression.

In addition, the feel-good benefits of potential weight loss, increased energy, better skin, improved physical health will all contribute to a more positive outlook on life. Small improvements in exercise levels or nutrition create a positive upward spiral and eventually become rewarding, even if that seems unimaginable at the start. In my opinion, exercise can now be considered in certain cases to replace medication for chronic mental health conditions with a prescribed exercise regime acting as a solution to the diagnosis.

Feature article written by: James Golden James is a qualified Fitness Professional and a Thrive Expert. He works as a Fitness Consultant to the prestigious Bamford Spa at Daylesford.