How Does Physical Activity Improve Mental Health?

We all know that physical activity is good for us, but how does physical activity improve mental health? If you want to understand more about the relationship between physical activity and mental health and how exercise can be greatly beneficial, here’s what you need to know…

close up of a woman's legs and feet wearing rubber shoes while walking

The relationship between physical activity and mental health

Numerous studies have shown that physical activity can play an important role in the prevention and treatment of a range of mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, stress, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In fact, in a recent study led by Karmel Choi at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, it was found that engaging in either high intensity exercise for 15 minutes or one hour of low intensity exercise each day can reduce the risk of depression by 26%.

Similarly, in individuals already suffering from mild depression, research indicates that physical exercise can be as effective as other treatment methods including antidepressant medication and cognitive behavioural therapy.

Here’s how physical activity improves mental health

There are several explanations for how exercise can help to improve mental health.

The chemical changes to levels of serotonin (a mood stabilizer), endorphins (feel-good chemicals) and stress hormones that occur during exercise play an important role. Exercise can also provide a valuable distraction from negative thoughts, while enhancing self-efficacy and increasing social interaction.

Benefits of regular physical activity

Regular physical activity can provide numerous mental and physical health benefits, including:

  • Increased energy and stamina.
  • Better sleep.
  • Improved mood.
  • Reduced stress.
  • Relief from muscle tension.
  • Lower cholesterol and improved cardiovascular health.
  • Increased sex drive.
  • Lower body weight.

The physical health benefits are particularly valuable for those suffering from a mental health condition—already at a higher risk of suffering from chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, arthritis and asthma, regular exercise can help to reduce that risk.

How much physical activity do you need?

Engaging in at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity five or more days per week is enough to generate significant health benefits. This can be in a single session or broken up into several shorter 10-15 minute intervals.

Best types of physical activity for improving mental health

Aerobic exercises such as walking, jogging, swimming and cycling are excellent types of physical activity that are proven to reduce anxiety and depression.

While structured group exercise programs can be highly beneficial, they may not be as effective for individuals suffering from serious mental illness. In this case, making some simple lifestyle changes that will incorporate more physical activity into your day such as cleaning the car, doing some gardening or walking to a regular appointment can be of great benefit.

Think you could benefit from some personalised well-being counselling? Get started by requesting a complimentary 30-minute Mental Wellness Check-in with Acacia Psychology. Find out more or contact us to arrange a session with one of our experienced Psychologists or Social Workers.

"The safety and well being of our clients and staff is always our top priority. Acacia Psychology is currently operating under normal conditions. Due to the pandemic status of COVID-19, some locations may move from face-to-face counselling to secure video or phone. All counselling services are able to be provided 24/7, as always. We will continue to monitor the situation closely and act quickly on the advice of health authorities."