Physical Exercise & Mental Health

Ok, I refuse to write a blog entry on New Year Resolutions as I'd just be one of 500 other Psychologists doing the same. Instead, I'll chat to you about one common resolution theme- getting more exercise. Specifically, lets take a look at the benefits of physical exercise for your mental health...

The benefits of exercise for our physical health are well-known and in recent years there has been a growing awareness of how exercise can improve our psychological health. Unfortunately, pizza and beer is not likely to be as good for our mental health as physical exercise. Since this is not the case, the benefits of physical exercise on psychological well-being should not be ignored. There are many potential benefits of exercise on specific issues, such as depression and anxiety, as well as on overall well-being.  Although there is a large collection of studies that show the benefits of physical exercise on mental health, many studies are not particularly well designed. This reduces the certainty with which we can claim benefits, particularly amongst some groups where limited investigation has occurred (such as children). Despite this, the overall theme is that physical exercise does benefit our mental health and future research will hopefully provide more specific detail about this.


Why and how does physical exercise benefit mental health? Basically, the jury is still out here. But, there are several possible biological and psychological explanations. For example, exercise causes chemical changes that can have benefits for our psychological health, such as reduced stress-hormone release. Increased body temperature following physical exercise, especially in certain areas of the brain, is believed to help counter depressed mood and anxiety. Alternatively, exercise can provide initial psychological benefits, such as the feeling of achievement that comes after getting out for a walk, run, etc, or an increase in what psychologists call ‘self-efficacy’ (feeling that your health is under your own control, rather than determined by external factors). Exercise may also be a positive form of distraction from unpleasant thoughts. At this stage, many researchers suggest that exercise-related benefits are probably a mix between psychological and biological factors.


Many have asked what the best combination of exercise type, frequency, and intensity is to maximise benefits. Current thinking is that getting moving is more important that what you actually do. How much exercise a person should get involves investigating what’s called the dose-response relationship. In other words, do psychological benefits increase as you do more exercise? There is some support for this relationship but, what is surprising is the relatively small amounts of exercise required to get some positive effect. For instance, one study found that 30 minutes of treadmill walking for 10 straight days reduced depression symptoms in a sample of people . Another question concerns the best type of exercise to achieve maximum mental health benefits. Physical exercise can be grouped into aerobic and nonaerobic forms. Aerobic exercise requires large amounts of oxygen to generate energy whereas anaerobic exercise does not. Anaerobic exercise involves activities such as weight lifting and sprinting. Aerobic exercise examples include walking, jogging, swimming and rowing. One type of exercise does not appear to be more effective than the other in terms of reducing depressive symptoms. The picture is less clear for anxiety where there is limited research comparing aerobic and anaerobic exercise. One major study found that exercise intensity made no meaningful difference on anxiety symptoms in young people.     


Physical exercise appears to provide especially strong benefits for mild-moderately depressed mood. Exercise provides a large benefit for those suffering from depressed mood at the lower range of severity but is particularly useful for those who are more severely (clinically) depressed. There’s also some evidence to suggest that exercise can reduce the risk of getting depressed in the first place. How effective exercise is compared to medication and psychological treatments is difficult to say due to different estimates. Having said this, several large-scale studies have estimated that exercise is at least as effective as conventional psychological treatments. In a study comparing the effectiveness of exercise versus medication for depression, results suggested that both were equally effective. Those people suffering from more serious forms of depression are likely to be inactive. The good news is that relatively small amounts of physical exercise can produce benefits for mood. Around 20 minutes of exercise at moderate intensity three times per week may be enough to benefit.


Exercise also looks to have benefits for stress and anxiety levels as well but there is comparatively less research available compared to work done in the area of depression. Overall, there is support for the anxiety-reducing properties of physical exercise in people with and without anxiety disorders. In other words, exercise is associated with lowered anxiety across a wide range of anxiety severity levels. Exercise is effective in reducing anxiety symptoms, but may not be as effective as some anti-anxiety medications.


Here are some suggestions to help get you going, and hopefully help you maintain a regular programme of exercise:

  • Start slowly on an exercise programme. You are more likely to stick with an exercise programme if you start with low intensity activities and slowly build this up.
  • Choose exercise that is enjoyable in some way.
  • Use a variety of exercise activities to keep your programme interesting.
  • Keep in mind the benefits of exercise. This may help keep you going when you feel like chucking in the running shoes and eating a cream-filled pastry.
  • Don’t get too wrapped in comparing your exercise performance against others.
  • Walking is the easiest form of exercise available to most people. So, no need to get the credit card out for a gym membership.  
  • Keep some form of record of your exercise. This helps with setting goals to keep you interested and challenged.
  • Exercise with others- this provides extra social contact and makes you more accountable to others (e.g., more likely to turn up for a pre-arranged exercise session.
  • Try one of the loads of cool pieces of technology now available to help with exercise activities, goals, etc. For instance, many people are using various iPhone and Android apps. 

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