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It’s well known that exercise keeps our bodies healthy, but each year, its impact on our mental wellbeing is gaining more recognition among health professionals and the public alike. Engaging in physical activity triggers chemical changes in the brain, like the release of endorphins (often referred to as ‘feel-good’ hormones) which can elevate our mood and combat stress. But the more we come to understand this connection, the clearer it is that the benefits extend beyond the physical.

   

In this blog, we’ll unpack the science behind how physical activity influences your mental health, and offer some practical advice on integrating exercise and activity in your daily life to enhance your overall well-being — body and mind.

The Science Behind Physical Activity and Mental Health

Physical activity acts as a powerful catalyst for improving mental health, thanks to several biochemical mechanisms (natural brain chemistry changes). For example, when we exercise, our bodies release endorphins and serotonin — neurotransmitters that are often thought of as natural stress fighters and mood lifters. This process not only helps in reducing feelings of depression and anxiety, but also contributes to a heightened sense of well-being. In short: Get moving and you suddenly start to feel better!

And it’s not just anecdotal, either. Research consistently supports these effects, with numerous studies showing that regular physical activity significantly lowers symptoms of depression and anxiety across various age groups. For example, a review by Front Psychiatry, published in the USA’s National Library of Medicine, found that moderate to vigorous exercise leads to a 22% higher likelihood of remission from depression.

Beyond mood enhancement, physical activity is also linked to cognitive benefits. Engaging in regular exercise has been associated with improved memory, faster learning, enhanced creativity, and a lower risk of cognitive decline as we age. Studies suggest that this is due to increased blood flow to the brain during exercise, which supports neuronal health and may stimulate the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factors, assisting in the growth and maintenance of neural connections. What does that mean? Making exercise a regular part of your week means you’ll not only feel better (in mind and body) but you’ll age better and live longer! If that’s not a good reason to get physical, I don’t know what is! 

Using Physical Activity as a Preventative and Therapeutic Tool for Mental Health

Physical activity is not only important for maintaining physical fitness but also a huge factor in preventing and managing mental health issues. Exercise is increasingly recognised as a vital element in therapeutic strategies for mental health conditions. For example, structured exercise regimens have been proven to help reduce symptoms of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, often complementing traditional treatments like psychotherapy or medication. 

Good to know: Walking, jogging, and yoga show some of the best results. And exercising in groups, with an instructor, is shown to be more effective than going solo. 

What the research tells us is this: Exercising in any way will improve mental health. For the best results, having an instructor and exercising in group training sessions can give an added ‘oompf’ to your mental well-being. This is because going it alone can make it hard to maintain your motivation. But also, we are social creatures! Exercising in groups is important for social connection, keeping at it, and being surrounded by like-minded people. It’s a win, win, win! 

Another important thing that this research tells us is that having experts in your corner is the most effective way to improve your physical and mental health, not just for treating and managing depression or anxiety, but for ensuring you’re healthy as you age. That means having multidisciplinary help — from psychologists to nutritionists and personal trainers — can significantly amplify the benefits of physical activity. Such a holistic approach ensures that each regimen is tailored to meet individual psychological and physiological needs, enhancing both mental and physical health. 

Practical Tips to Integrate Physical Activity and Mental Health

Incorporating physical activity into your daily routine can seem daunting (and for many people, giving up after a couple of weeks is normal), but with a few practical steps, it becomes more achievable and enjoyable. Start by choosing activities you enjoy, which can range from brisk walking and yoga to more vigorous exercises like cycling or team sports. The key is to find pleasure in these activities to ensure consistency and longevity in your routine.

Here are a few tips to help you get started:

  • Set realistic goals: Like many Australians, you might find setting incremental goals helpful. Begin with short, manageable bouts of activity and gradually increase the duration and intensity.
  • Schedule your workouts: Just as you would a meeting, schedule your workouts into your calendar. This establishes a routine and helps you remember the importance of this time.
  • Overcome barriers: If time constraints or a lack of motivation are hindering your activity levels, consider integrating physical activity into everyday tasks. For instance, a walk during lunch breaks or using stairs instead of the elevator can make a big difference.
  • Social support: Engaging friends or family members in your exercise routines can increase motivation and make activities more enjoyable.

Whether you suffer from depression or anxiety, or just want to feel better than you do now, these tips can help you feel great and live longer. 

Professional Support for Enhancing Mental Health with Physical Activity

The path to mental wellness through physical activity often requires more than just determination — it can really benefit from some expert guidance. Health professionals such as psychologists, nutritionists, and personal trainers can play a pivotal role in crafting personalised physical activity plans that address both mental and physical health needs. Importantly, these can be tailored to what suits you best, and help keep you accountable.  By consulting with professionals, you can maximise the mental health benefits of your physical routines, ensuring that each step taken is a big stride towards overall better well-being. 

The takeaway: A holistic approach that integrates nutritional, psychological, and fitness expertise can significantly enhance the effectiveness of physical activity as a therapeutic tool.

Embracing Physical Activity for Your Mental Health

The link between physical activity and mental health is undeniable! If you’re looking to develop a comprehensive and personalised health plan that aligns with your mental and physical goals, reach out to Integrated Health Specialists today. Our team is ready to support you on your journey to a healthier, more balanced life, and better mental health. 

Michelle van Namen
Author: Michelle van Namen