Exercise: The Mental Health Benefits

It’s no secret that physical activity has benefits on mental wellbeing too. The positive influence exercise can have on our emotional health is just as important as the physical boost. Keeping active can reduce stress, depression and anxiety, improve your mood and increase self-esteem.

If you think this sounds too good to be true, there are scientific reasons behind how sport helps mental health and improves your mind, body and soul. The Royal College of Psychiatrists recognises exercise as a suitable treatment for various mental health conditions.

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How common are mental health problems?

The Department of Health defines wellbeing as a “positive physical, social and mental state”. It takes into account people’s ability to build relationships with others, develop their full potential and work creatively and productively.

Mental health problems are common in the UK, with 23% of the population having experienced them at some point. Depression affects 3.3% of people with mental health problems, while 5.9% have generalised anxiety disorder, 7.8% have mixed anxiety and depression and 0.6% have panic disorder.

Participating in regular physical activity can reduce anxiety and stress and increase self-esteem, improving the quality of life of people experiencing these feelings, according to medical research. Physical activity can be used as a stand-alone treatment or combined with medication and psychological therapy to treat depression.

Evidence suggests depression is reduced by 20% to 30% in adults who are taking part in daily physical activities. It has potential advantages over medication such as antidepressants, as it has fewer side effects. People with mild symptoms of stress and anxiety can also experience a reduction in feeling this way through exercise.


Why does exercise help mental health?

Physical activity such as exercise produces chemicals in the brain known as endorphins. As good natural painkillers, interacting with receptors in the brain, they are known as nature’s “feel good” chemicals.

Exercise also makes people feel naturally tired, so they sleep better at night. It gives us something to focus on, rather than sitting still and letting our minds wander to depressing thoughts. This in turn helps us to gain confidence as we meet exercise goals, even small ones. This boosts self-esteem, as does getting in shape, as this can make us feel better about how we look.

Exercise and physical activity, particularly if you go to a gym or leisure centre, can increase social interaction. Meeting and talking to other people, or even just exchanging a friendly smile, can help improve your mood.

Physical activities help participants cope with mental health problems in a natural and healthy way. It’s a coping strategy that promotes wellbeing, rather than a negative coping strategy such as drinking alcohol, for example.


How much exercise do you need?

Many GPs’ surgeries in the UK will prescribe exercise as a treatment for conditions such as depression. Anyone who hasn’t exercised for a long time should check with their doctor first.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence suggests taking part in three exercise sessions per week, of 45 minutes to one hour each, for people with mild to moderate depression. Do this for ten to 14 weeks before increasing your exercise routine, time and schedule permitting. Your GP can work with you to decide on the most beneficial type of exercise.

Exercise programmes may be offered free, or at a reduced cost, at some local facilities for people with health conditions: running, jogging, walking, swimming, cycling and dancing have been proven to reduce anxiety and depression.

Automatic doors are a great way to improve accessibility in the sports and leisure sector, making it simple and safe for large footfalls of people to enter a leisure centre. They are also important under the Disability Discrimination Act to make leisure centres as accessible as possible for all.