The link between exercise and mental health

Exercise is good for you – that seems to be a widely accepted fact. But why? Luis Parnham examines the science behind exercise and happiness

Over the past few years research has allowed us to explore the benefits of physical activity and how exercise impacts the human body, both physically and mentally. It has become almost universally known that exercise is good for the body and has many physical benefits.

According to the NHS website, physical benefits of exercise include a lower risk of: coronary heart disease and stroke; type 2 diabetes; bowel cancer; breast cancer in women; early death; osteoarthritis; hip fracture; falls (in older adults); and dementia.

However, there are many equally important mental health benefits, too.

Chemical-boosting happiness

So, what exactly does happen when we exercise?

Why does it lift our mood? Quite simply, when we exercise, the human body switches on and releases several chemicals that boost your sense of happiness and wellbeing – as well as silencing the hormones that cause stress and anxiety. Endorphins, serotonin and dopamine neurotransmitters are just a few of the main chemicals released during exercise. Endorphins help relieve stress and pain as well as improving wellbeing. Serotonin is the feeling of happiness, optimism, and satisfaction; while dopamine plays an important role in pleasurable reward and motivation.

It has become almost universally known that exercise is good for the body

Happiness is a subjected state of mind characterised by the feeling of enjoyment, being content and overall wellbeing (Veenhoven, 2010). Such is the importance of this that countries such as France, Canada and the United Kingdom now include a national happiness index as an indicator for national progress (Ghent, 2011).

Reduction in anxiety

In a follow-up study in 20211, mental disorders have increased in 6–16-year-olds from one in nine to one in six since 2017. It is likely that one of the main reasons for this can be attributed to children not exercising during the Covid–19 pandemic and ensuing lockdowns.

In fact, according to MIND:

● 9 in 10 young people said that loneliness made their mental health worse during the pandemic
● young people said they were missing positive coping strategies, like seeing friends or being outside.

The toll of anxiety can be demanding; it can increase a person’s risk of depression as well as contributing to diabetes and cardiovascular problems. People who suffer from anxiety tend to do less intense forms of exercise and are more sedentary. However, exercising can help ease anxiety, and here are the reasons why:

● Engaging in exercise can help take your mind off the exact thing you are anxious about
● Moving the human body decreases muscle tension, thus lowering the body’s contribution to feeling anxious
● An increased heart rate changes the brain chemistry, releasing all of the happy chemicals and hormones
● Exercising regularly builds up resources that bolster resilience against stormy emotions.

Sports scientists conducted a meta-review researching if anxiety specifically was reduced through exercise. Results provided clinicians with solid evidence to recommend exercise training to patients as a means to reduce anxiety (Herring et al, 2010).

Physical fitness and exercise can also help young people develop important skills such as conflict resolution, cooperation with peers and social skills

Exercise can be daunting for some; however, not every individual has to play a 90-minute game of football or complete a marathon to reap the rewards. In fact, the NHS states that 150 minutes of moderate exercise (75 minutes of vigorous) a week is the guideline. It is important to spread the exercise out across the week and reduce the times sat down and not moving.

While children may well get their quota of exercise at school, both through play and at sports clubs, busy teachers and staff who may be juggling their jobs and home life – or for those less sporty – there are some simple ways to make exercise more accessible:

● Park further away from the shops
● Take stairs instead of the lift
● Go on a family bike ride or walk
● Find a workout partner
● Take breaks from your computer and walk up and down the hallway.

Reduction in stress

Exercise can also aid mental wellbeing by reducing stress that occurs. Any form of exercise can act as a stress reliever. Exercise will reduce the negative effects of stress whilst imitating the effects of stress – such as your fight or flight response, which is an example of one of the stresses your body faces when exercising. This helps your body and its systems practise working through the effects of stress.

Exercise could also be seen as a form of meditation: as you exercise, you have to think about how your body is moving and how you are going to move your body.

This keeps the mind at bay and helps you forget about all the stressful things going on. And, as mentioned, exercise will also improve your mood, releasing the endorphins and hormones to make you feel happy and relaxed.

Physical activity improves your body’s ability to use oxygen and also improves blood flow; both of these changes have a direct effect on your brain. Some people notice an improvement in their mood straight away following activity, and those feelings won’t end there. Generally, they will become cumulative over time. This means, the more you exercise, the greater those feelings will become as you stay committed to routine activity.

For children, notably, exercise can boost self-esteem and reduce depression and anxiety, as well as symptoms of attention deficit disorder, notes the Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine UK.

Improvement of social skills

There are also indirect mental wellbeing benefits that people may not be aware of, such as the increase in social skills that people of all ages can gain from activity. For children, it can provide a way of connecting with peers and a common interest, particularly useful, perhaps, when joining a new school.

Physical fitness and exercise can also help young people develop important skills such as conflict resolution, cooperation with peers and social skills, such as leadership, and fine-tuning motor skills. For the more reluctant, team sports may be the only way to get some individuals exercising because they may only want to exercise if they can be on the same team as a friend.

Team sports also promote feelings of camaraderie such as sticking together if you lose, or celebrating when you win. The feeling of belonging to a group or a team, to a community, can help the child – or adult – join in again – and its benefits cannot be overstated.

Veenhoven, R. (2010). How Universal is Happiness? (Chap. 11). In E. Diener, J. F. Helliwell, & D. Kahneman (Eds.), International differences in well-being (pp. 328–350). New York: Oxford University Press.

Ghent, A. (2011). The happiness effect. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 89(4), 246–247.

Herring, M. P., O’Connor, P. J., & Dishman, R. K. (2010). The effect of exercise training on anxiety symptoms among patients: a systematic review. Archives of internal medicine, 170(4), 321-331.

A note of caution

Obviously, while the positives of physical activity cannot be overstated, it is important to know about and manage some of the possible negative effects that could arise from exercise in certain situations. One known example is the link between exercise and eating disorders or conditions such as body dysmorphia. The latter is where a child or adult can become overly obsessed with how they look and how they think they should look, which can lead to over-exercising and thus cause more harm than good. While this can affect people of any age, men or women, the latter is more prevalent in teenagers and young people, particularly with all the current societal and social media pressures on looking a certain way.

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