18 May 2022

What are the benefits of exercise on mental health?

AWritten by admin
We all know that exercise can improve our physical health. But what about the effects of exercise on our mental and emotional health? Is it possible that exercise can have mental benefits and ward off depression and anxiety? Let’s find out!

Mens Sana In Corpore Sano

Being healthy is more than just eating your vegetables and exercising. In fact, our mind and body are intrinsically intertwined and dependent on each other, when one suffers so does the other. 

In fact, the relationship between mind and body is so powerful that some physical ailments originate from our mind. Sufferers of migraines, IBS, back pain and other health conditions often find their triggers in their state of mind. Stress can cause or aggravate a headache, fear can trigger nausea or an upset stomach, and so on. 

There are countless examples which link mind and body health, this is the very essence of psychosomatic medicine. In fact, this approach to medicine encompasses the relationship between social, psychological and behavioural influences and physical health and well-being. 

As the Latin saying goes: mens sana in corpore sano, a healthy mind in a healthy body. This is the ultimate goal for a happy and serene life. 

Many people may consider themselves healthy because they eat fairly well and exercise, perhaps limit their alcohol intake and avoid smoking. Whilst all of these behaviours are great and conducive to a healthy lifestyle, they all have one thing in common: they relate to the body. 

But what about the mind? How can we look after our mind in a way that increases our health and well-being? It turns out that there are many ways to do this, from meditation and journaling to mindfulness and therapy. Many people tout the benefits of exercise on mental health. In fact, there is evidence that mental and emotional health can be improved through exercise. Let’s find out what the mental benefits of exercise are and how you can apply them to your life.

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Mental health, exercise and personality traits 

A group of researchers from the Netherlands strived to examine whether regular physical activity is linked to anxiety, depression and personality. In order to control for genetic variability, they conducted the study on a population of over 19,000 twins. Participation in exercise, anxiety and depression levels as well as personality traits were all assessed via self-report questionnaires.(1) 

The results showed that on average, exercisers were less anxious, less depressed and less neurotic. For context, in psychology, neuroticism refers to abroad personality trait dimension. It defines the degree to which an individual experiences the world as threatening and distressing. 

Highly neurotic individuals are usually anxious, tense and withdrawn. On the opposite end of the spectrum, people with very low neuroticism are content, stable and confident. People who score low on neuroticism tend to report less physical and psychological ailments compared to their highly neurotic counterparts. 

Moreover, people who exercised also scored higher in levels of extraversion and sensation-seeking. These findings are in line with and confirm previous findings that show regular exercise is associated with lower neuroticism, anxiety and depression. 


Exercise: a treatment for anxiety?

Anxiety disorders are on the rise and they are commonly treated with psychological treatment or medication or a combination of the two. Some patients may be open to alternative approaches such as exercise to tackle their anxiety. 

A systematic review of the literature looked at the effects of exercise in people with anxiety disorders compared to other typical treatments. The researchers analysed the results from eight randomised controlled trials to determine the effects of physical exercise on the studied participants.(2) 

Overall it appears that exercise seems to be effective as a complementary treatment for anxiety disorders however it is less effective than antidepressant treatment. In addition, the nature of the  exercise does not seem to matter. In fact, both aerobic and anaerobic exercise appeared to have reduced anxiety symptoms. 

Whilst further research is needed to confidently say that exercise can single-handedly resolve anxiety, the results are promising enough to suggest that it can and should be included as an adjunct form of treatment. 

Can exercise help with depression?

A group of researchers at the University of Texas, Austin, investigated the effects of acute exercise on mood and well-being in patients with major depressive disorder. The aim of the study was to understand if a single session of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise could improve mood and well-being in subjects who were in treatment for major depressive disorder (MDD).(3)

Participants were either assigned to 30 minutes of exercise or 30 minutes of rest. Interestingly, following the intervention, both groups reported decreased feelings of distress, depression, confusion, fatigue, tension and anger. However, only those in the exercise group reported a significant increase in feelings of well-being and vigor (i.e. lively, active).  

Overall, it appears that although both moderate-intensity exercise and quiet rest can decrease negative feelings in individuals with MDD, exercise has a more powerful effect on increasing positive mood states such as vigor. 

Another meta-analysis looked at the effects of exercise on major depression. The results showed that both acute and chronic exercise (i.e. a specific session vs  regular ongoing exercise) significantly improved depressed mood. What’s more, the antidepressant effect of exercise continued into the long-term. The researchers found promising results across all age groups, genders, and of all health statuses. (4)

In addition, all modes of exercise proved to be effective, both aerobic and anaerobic. It’s no surprise that exercise and mental health, and particularly the effect of exercise on depression, has gained a lot of interest in the field of sport psychology. 

The impact of exercise on mood changes 

One study looked at the effects of exercise on mood changes. Researchers from the United Kingdom analysed the extent to which a depressed mood pre-exercise can impact the influence of exercise on changes in other mood states.(5)

The researchers hypothesised that exercise would lead to improved mood despite a depressed mood pre-exercise. They also predicted that the effect of exercise on mood would be larger for individuals who reported depressed mood before exercise. In addition, the researchers hypothesised that individuals who reported symptoms of depression prior to exercise were also more likely to report anger, confusion, fatigue, tension and low vitality.

Participants were either allocated to a no-depression group, or a depressed mood group based on pre-exercise depression scores. The exercise intervention consisted of a one hour aerobic dance session. 

Results showed that anger, confusion, fatigue and tension decreased significantly and vigor increased significantly. 

Moreover, the reduction of these negative mood states and increase in vigor was much greater in the depressed mood group. In addition, pre-exercise feelings of depression were associated with an overall negative mood profile as predicted.

Overall, the findings suggest that exercise can improve mood. Moreover, this effect is much greater for individuals reporting low mood prior to exercise. 

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“As the Latin saying goes: mens sana in corpore sano, a healthy mind in a healthy body. This is the ultimate goal for a happy and serene life.”


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The power of nature 

While exercise in itself can have benefits on our mental health, the environment in which we practice physical activity may matter too! The effects of nature on our well-being have been well-documented. The Japanese in particular are pioneers in the act of forest bathing, known as shinrin yoku. The mere act of spending time amongst nature seems to work wonders for our mental health. 

A systematic review of the literature compared the effects of exercise indoors versus in natural environments on mental and physical wellbeing and health related quality of life. Participants walked or ran either indoors or outdoors. It was found that compared to indoor exercise, exercise conducted outdoors in natural environments was associated with increased positive feelings and higher energy levels. Moreover, feelings of tension, confusion, anger and depression were more significantly decreased with outdoor exercise.(6)

Overall, this review showed promising results on mental wellbeing following outdoor nature in natural environments. Further studies are required to confirm these findings in long-term trials. However, for now it seems that there is no reason not to start exercising outdoors. Just remember your sun protection!

In conclusion, it appears that exercise can benefit our mental health. Whether it’s aerobic or anaerobic, sporadic or regular, exercise can improve our mental and emotional health. Bonus points if you’re exercising outdoors in nature! If you’re new to exercise or for whatever reason cannot engage in more vigorous physical activity, walking has many proven benefits. In fact, even just walking at a leisurely pace can improve our mood, increase our mental alertness and vitality. A small effort can go a long way, you just need to take the first step. 

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