“Evidence shows there’s a link between being physically active and good mental wellbeing.”
In today’s blog, we look at how exercise, fitness and physical health can benefit mental health, from improving self-esteem to reducing loneliness.
Why do we need to be concerned about mental wellbeing?
Mental Health Awareness Week 2019, organised by the Mental Health Foundation, will this year run from 13-19 May.
A survey commissioned from YouGov in 2018 found that 74% of UK adults had felt “so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope”, with 32% experiencing suicidal feelings and 16% saying they had self-harmed.
Although there has been a reduction in recent years in the number of men taking their own lives, it is still one of the major causes of death for men in the UK, with the highest figures recorded for men aged 45-49.
How does exercise improve wellbeing?
Physical activity, from a gym session to a walk in the countryside, is used by many as a way to alleviate mental health issues from anxiety to depression.
There are several ways that exercise can help us on the path to better mental wellbeing, for example:
- It can boost your self-esteem, foster a positive self-image and improve your mood
- Better overall health means you are less likely to fall ill and suffer the negative mental aspects of physical illness
- Being fit helps you to cope with everyday activities eg running for the bus, carrying shopping, or kicking a football around with your children – all of which can help with positive mental wellbeing
- Activities such as playing a team sport, following a fitness class or learning a dance routine encourages focus on the task in hand, rather than negative thoughts
- Achieving exercise and sporting goals can bring a sense of achievement and positivity from rising to a challenge and demonstrating self-control
- Exercise often has a social aspect, reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation
What sort of exercise can benefit mental wellbeing?
While some people enjoy going to the gym and working up a sweat, there are many other types of exercise that can have a positive impact on your wellbeing.
You may prefer solitary pursuits, such as a taking a walk in the park, going for a run or bike ride, or going for a swim – although all of these can also be carried out in company (look online for local groups you can join).
If you like the idea of a social element to your exercise, why not join a local five-a-side football team or start a yoga or dance class.
How does physical activity improve mental health?
Physical activity improves blood flow and increases the heart rate and the supply of oxygen to the brain. You may have heard of the expression “runners’ high” – this comes from endorphins produced when you exercise that naturally boost your mood.
Exercising releases hormones that cause chemical changes in the brain that have a positive impact on mood. These include the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is connected to the pleasure and reward part of the brain, and serotonin, which is known as the “happy chemical”. These moderate our emotional responses and improve feelings of wellbeing.
Physical activity also produces noradrenalin, relating to the “fight or flight” response, which can make you feel more alert and assertive.
Research on the potential benefits of exercise for people with depression, derived from 49 studies from around the world, can be found on the NHS site: https://www.nhs.uk/news/mental-health/regular-exercise-may-help-lower-your-risk-depression/
Where can I find out more?
The Mental Health Foundation has a number of resources, including the Let’s Get Physical report: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/sites/default/files/lets-get-physical-report.pdf
In 2018, the Lancet Psychiatry Journal published a report about exercise and mental health based on a cross-sectional study of 1.2 million people in the US.
Sport England also has information on why it promotes exercise for mental wellbeing: https://www.sportengland.org/our-work/mental-health/why-we-invest-in-mental-health/