World Mental Health Day: The benefits of regular exercise for mental health 

two people laughing on the beach

Everyone is on their own reasons for exercising, however many of these motives are often physical. It might be…‘I just want to get fit or ‘I’m training for my first marathon, alternatively, it could be just a part of your everyday life, playing sports professionally, or working in the health and fitness industry. However, not many people say ‘I’m exercising to help improve my mental health, despite the fact that the links between exercise and mental health have long been common knowledge. 

The 10th of October marks World Mental Health Day and we thought it was the perfect time to explain the exact links between exercise and mental health, what we can learn from the many studies out there and why now is the perfect time to be prioritising your mind as part of your fitness journey.  

Anxiety disorders and depression are the most common mental illnesses in the US (aada.org), with 19.1% of the population aged 18 or over experiencing anxiety disorders and only 36.9% of those seeking treatment. Anxiety can also be linked to other common mental health conditions such as clinical depression, OCD, or PTSD. There is a wide range of options to treat these conditions and we’d always recommend consulting with a medical professional to put in place the best form of treatment for you. However, there has long been a link between physical activity and mental well-being, which can help manage and alleviate some symptoms. 

So, what are the facts?

Guidance from the CDC around the benefits of physical activity for mental health states that even one session of moderate-vigorous physical activity reduces anxiety and even short bouts of activity are beneficial (CDC.gov). Whilst in the Second Edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans by the US Department of Health & Human Services, it states that regular physical activity can show improvements in long-term anxiety, sleep issues, and components of executive function (the ability to plan and organize; monitor, inhibit or facilitate behaviors; initiate tasks and control emotions.)   

It’s not just anxiety either; depression, a leading cause of disability for middle-aged adults in the United States, is also highlighted as having a link with physical exercise. Engaging in regular physical activity has been proven to reduce the risk of developing depression, as well as helping to improve the symptoms associated with it. 

Previous studies over the years have shown mind-blowing results, in one of the largest pieces of research undertaken in the US, The Lancet questioned 1.2 million people over four years and found that those who exercised reported 1.86 days of poor mental health per month, whilst those that didn’t exercise recorded 3.36– almost double.  

More recently, the John W Brick Mental Health Foundation (johnwbrickfoundation.org )have published its own report combining all research conducted on the correlation between exercise and mental health between 1990 and 2022. Their findings overwhelmingly indicated a clear link between the two, with 89% of all published peer-reviewed research showing a positive, statistically significant relationship between exercise and mental health. 

girl running up the  for mental health

How much exercise is needed to make an impact on your mental health and what types of exercise?

The most common findings were that between 30-45 minutes of moderate-vigorous exercise sessions undertaken three to five times a week deliver the best level of benefits. 

However, some studies have shown that the benefits can even be seen after one session. Certain exercise types have been noted to help with certain conditions, for example, some yoga or mind-body movement should be built into a routine when combatting anxiety, whereas a BMC study has shown that exercises types that promote cardiorespiratory fitness and grip strength can help with depression and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. 

More often than not it’s about recognizing what works for you. In the same way that we set ourselves physical goals and recognize when we can push our body further or we need to rest, work out what makes you feel mentally more fulfilled, and build that into a regular routine. 

Now, it’s even more important than ever…

You may well be thinking, well hey this isn’t new news! Well, you’re right, but with higher levels of psychological stress as well as an increase in reported mental health concerns as a result of the pandemic and current climate, it’s more important than ever not only be setting (and crushing!) those physical goals, but ensuring that we’re prioritizing our mental needs too.

The pandemic has also meant we’ve seen a decline in prioritizing physical activity due to rising anxiety which is something that has been labeled the ‘pandemic paradox’ (mcmaster.ca), this paradox also showed that those who had the greatest decline in physical activity also had the greatest decline in mental health, so it’s important to be aware of those mental goals as well as the physical targets. 

So, what should we take from all of this?

First things first, if you experiencing any kind of mental health concern speak to a medical professional who can advise on the best course of action for you.  

However, the likelihood is if you are reading this you’re already someone who regularly exercises (which is great!) but remember to take a step back and build in different types of activity that you recognize help to fuel a more positive mental output. For example, you might be thinking how there is something in your routine that you just hate but you do for the greater good… make sure you’re balancing that out with an activity that makes you feel regenerated, calm, and positive too! 

If you’re not already regularly exercising, well then that’s the place to start! Aim for those three to five sessions a week of 30-45 minutes, mix up your activity type and find out what makes you feel stronger, physically and mentally. We’ve also got our very own guide to getting started here.

Most importantly we want you to know, this World Mental Health Day, we’re here to support you on every journey, no matter what it looks like.  

Resources:

https://mhanational.org/finding-help

https://adaa.org/

Further Reading:

https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/index.htm

https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf#page=39

https://www.womenshealthmag.com/uk/fitness/strength-training/a708830/emotional-benefits-of-exercise/

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0239244

https://www.menshealth.com/uk/mental-strength/a36274150/exercise-anxiety-mental-health/

https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12916-020-01782-9

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