We already know that exercise is essential for good physical health. It helps prevent chronic diseases, keeps our weight under control, our blood pressure down, and our hearts healthy. But in recent years, researchers have been learning a lot more about just how important physical activity is for our mental health.
What does the science say?
Studies consistently tell us that people who workout regularly have better mental health and emotional wellbeing, and lower rates of mental illness. In particular, aerobic exercises like jogging, swimming, cycling, walking and dancing, have all been proven to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
When comparing the mental health of people who are active to those who don’t exercise, the results clearly show that people who are active are less likely to experience depression. In fact, studies have even found that when it comes to treating mild to moderate depression, exercise can be just as effective as medication or therapy.
Understanding the mind-body link
There are many ways that physical exercise can positively impact our mental health and brain function:
- It gets blood pumping to the brain, which can help us think more clearly and improve our memory function
- Exercise boosts the nerve cell connections in the brain, which helps prevent it from injury and disease
- Movement promotes the release of feel-good chemicals in your brain, like endorphins and serotonin
- Training provides an outlet to release tension and frustration
- Working out improves the quality of your sleep, which helps regulates your moods and increases your energy levels during the day
- Exercise helps reduce feelings of loneliness by connecting you with other people
- Physical movement gives you a sense of accomplishment and confidence in achieving fitness goals
How much exercise do you need to reap the benefits?
To get the most of your exercise, Australian guidelines recommend that you do 30 minutes of vigorous physical activity a day. You can make up 30 minutes over the day by combining shorter 10 to 15 minute sessions. By ‘vigorous’ exercise, we mean a workout that is intense enough that you’d find it difficult to have a conversation with someone while you’re exercising.
But don’t be put off if this sounds too full on—any exercise is better than no exercise, so easing yourself into movement and gradually building up the intensity of your workouts is a good way to get started.
There are also ways you can enhance the mental health benefits of exercise. Working out with other people, or playing a group sport, can further boost our emotional wellbeing by helping us feel more socially connected.
Practising mindfulness while doing exercise is a great add-on to your workout, as this can also help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.