4 ways physical activity improves your mental health

25 May 2020

It’s no secret that being physically active is strongly related to improved physical health resulting in reduced risk of chronic disease, weight control, and improved energy levels, to name a few. But what about the psychological benefits of movement?

From reducing the symptoms of depression and anxiety to improving self-esteem, the mental health benefits of keeping our bodies active are far-reaching. These factors combined should be enough motivation to get us tying those shoe laces and hitting the pavement.

So what are the main mental health benefits of exercise and physical activity? Here is what the experts say:

  1. Eases symptoms of anxiety and depression
    When we engage in physical activity our bodies produce neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and endorphins, which can increase positive emotions and boost our mood and energy levels. Even going for a short walk around the block can cause the release of these chemicals in our brains and can provide relief to those experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Also, engaging in exercise or physical activity can help to divert our attention away from the things causing stress in our lives, as well as decreasing muscle tension, which contributes to improved mood and energy levels.

    ​Stress, anxiety, and feeling sad at times are normal parts of life, especially during the current COVID-19 crisis. Physical activity can help you cope with these life stresses as you develop self-confidence through your ability to live a healthy lifestyle and avoid the things that detract from it.
  2. Improves self-esteem
    Self-esteem is an important aspect of our mental health. Physical activity has been shown to result in higher levels of self-esteem. People with higher levels of self-esteem are generally more emotionally stable, more resilient to stress, more motivated, and strive to accomplish goals they set. The reverse is true for people with low self-esteem.  Physical activity improves our self-esteem by way of self-efficacy – we trust ourselves to take care of our bodies and stick to our workout schedule.
  3. Improves sleep
    Getting a good night’s sleep has been shown to increase a person’s energy levels, boost and regulate mood, and decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety. Getting just 30 minutes of physical activity per day can improve our sleep. Interestingly, being physically active throughout the day can also improve our sleep by increasing our body temperature. As the day progresses into the evening our body temperature drops down within a normal range, which has been shown to elicit feelings of tiredness and promote falling asleep more easily.

    As the current climate has created extra stress, it is increasingly important to be getting a good night’s sleep because good sleep can aid in keeping our immune system strong. Not getting enough sleep or good quality sleep can increase cortisol (the stress hormone), which has a range of negative health consequences and can affect our mood and emotions. ​
  4. Increases social connectedness
    Physical activity is also a great way to increase our social connectedness and engagement with others. Going for walks with friends or family, joining a running group, or online options such as home group fitness classes and even exercising alone and sharing exercise accomplishments on apps like Strava or on social media are all great ways to stay active and engage with others. Feeling connected to others is important for our mental health and has been shown to significantly reduce symptoms of depression. Also, participating in physical activity with others can increase your motivation and help you feel supported and accountable, which in turn can help you sustain and achieve your health and fitness goals. 

What type of physical activity should I be doing, and how much is enough?

Physical activity is the blanket term for any movement resulting in an increase in energy expenditure. Physical activity can include regular daily activity such as walking your dog, gardening, or simply carrying your grocery bags from the car to the kitchen. Exercise refers to actions that are planned, structured, and repetitive for the purpose of improving your physical fitness.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a lot of our planned exercise being cancelled – gyms are closed, sport has been postponed. Our ability to follow our regular exercise routines have been compromised due to the current restrictions in place. There are many alternative ways to make sure you are getting the recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity. Perhaps now is a great time to try a new form of exercise such as: yoga, jogging, hiking, or playing tennis. Take this unique opportunity to explore other available exercise options and find what works best for you as an individual.  

Above all, remember to be kind to yourself during this time. Self-compassion will not only help you remain active but can also help you deal with uncertainty. Recognising that everyone is in the same boat will help you gain better control over your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours and align these with your goal of living a healthy and happy life. 

Interested in the mental health benefits of physical activity; or struggling with the motivation to get active, and stay active? You may benefit from talking to a sport psychologist. Find out more and book an appointment here. Your first session is free!

  Author: Emily Ricketts
  Masters of Psychology (Sport & Exercise) candidate  



  Author: William Tierney
  Masters of Psychology (Sport & Exercise) candidate