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The Effect of Physical Exercise on Our Mental Health

Published 2 Jun 2020
Updated 21 Oct 2022
6 min read
The Effect of Physical Exercise on Our Mental Health

We all hear that exercise is beneficial and that it is good for you, but what does this all mean?

The impact physical exercise has on our body is quite common knowledge. We know that it gives us more energy, keeps us healthy and even helps with our physique.

But you may not be aware of the effects exercise can have on our brain and mental wellbeing.

“Exercise is the most transformative thing that you can do to your brain today,” says neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki.

How does exercise improve mental health?

There are many ways exercise positively influences our mental health. Often, people exercise because it makes them feel good. After exercising, you may tend to feel more energetic, relaxed and positive, which can lead to better sleeping patterns and sharper memory.

It can even help with your overall outlook on life. This all has to do with how certain parts of our brains are affected when we exercise.

As we exercise, our heart rate begins to increase, pumping oxygen to the brain. The release of hormones when we exercise also promotes the production and growth of brain cells. Exercise stimulates chemicals in our brains that can improve our mood, memory and learning abilities.

When you exercise you boost the production of endorphins that help you relax, feel more pleasure, feel less pain and reduce stress hormones. It also has the ability to protect your brain from different conditions such as depression, dementia or Alzheimers.

Jennifer Carter, counselling and sports psychologist, says “I often recommend exercise for my psychotherapy clients, particularly for those who are anxious or depressed”.

A study of 1.2 million people found that those who exercised, reported having 1.5 fewer days of poor mental health per month when compared to those who neglect to train their bodies.

The study included all types of physical activity. However, the strongest associations with improved mental health were team sports, cycling, aerobic and gym exercise.

Why does exercise have such a positive effect?

1. It has an immediate effect on the brain

By completing a single workout, your neurotransmitter levels (like dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline) increase, immediately putting you into a better mood.

In fact, exercising is thought to be just as effective in treating mild to moderate cases of depression as antidepressant treatments.

2. Exercise changes the brain’s anatomy, physiology and attention function.

By exercising, blood is pumped to your brain to produce brand new cells in the hippocampus (which is associated with memory and learning). As this part of the brain increases in volume, your memory improves, and you start to think more clearly.

According to Wendy, “The most common finding in neuroscience studies when looking at effects of long-term exercise is improved attention function dependent on your prefrontal cortex”.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for our focus and attention.

3. It protects your brain in the long term

Think of your brain as any other muscle of your body. If you keep working out, it increases the volume of your hippocampus and your prefrontal cortex. Both are parts of your brain that are the most vulnerable to neurodegenerative diseases and cognitive ageing.

In saying this, it doesn’t mean by exercising you can avoid these diseases completely. But by strengthening these parts of your brain, it could take longer for these diseases to have an effect.

What are the benefits of physical exercise on your mental health?

Here is a list of ways physical exercise can help improve mental health:

  • Reduces stress
  • Increases happiness levels and lowers levels of sadness and loneliness
  • Prevents depression and anxiety disorders
  • It gives you more energy
  • Improves overall quality of life
  • Better sleep quality
  • Increases self-esteem and promotes self-accomplishment
  • Better brain function
  • Sharper memory and thinking
  • Reduces skeletal muscle tension, making you feel more relaxed

How much exercise should you get to reap the benefits?

Exercise is something easy you could do right now and receive an immediate positive benefit on your brain.

The good news is that you don’t have to be a star athlete or gym fanatic to get the amazing benefits of exercise.

Australian guidelines recommend doing at least 30 minutes of physical exercise, 3 to 5 days a week to improve your mental health significantly. However, even modest amounts of exercise is still enough to gain the benefits and see a difference.

Remember that any exercise is better than no exercise!

Other tips to help you stay healthy

All the information you need for staying healthy, from recommended alcohol intake to how much sleep to get each night.

Moderate alcohol consumption

There’s nothing quite like unwinding with wine – in moderation, of course. The NHMRC Alcohol Guidelines recommend healthy men and women drink no more than two standard drinks on any one day.

Try to have two alcohol-free days each week. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid alcohol altogether. It’s important to remember that a serving size doesn’t always equal a standard drink – a bottle of beer, for example, may contain 1.2 or more standard drinks

As a rule, one standard drink equals 100ml of wine, 285ml full-strength beer, 30ml of spirits and 60ml of port or sherry.

Eat a balanced diet

You’ve heard it before – it’s super important to eat a balanced diet. But what does a balanced diet look like exactly?

According to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, each day healthy adults should eat a range of foods from the five food groups:

  • Four to six serves of grain-based foods
  • Two to three serves of dairy or other calcium-rich foods
  • One to three serves of lean meat, poultry, seafood, nuts or legumes
  • Five serves of vegetables
  • Two serves of fruit

What constitutes a serving is probably smaller than you think. One serving equals one cup of raw salad veg, half a cup of cooked veg, one slice of bread, 65g cooked red meat, one cup of milk or one medium-sized apple.

Check the Eat for Health website for more detailed information about serving sizes.

Monitor sugar and salt intake

Sugar should provide up to 10% of your total energy intake per day, which equates to roughly 25g or 6 teaspoons.

Check the nutrition panel to see how much sugar a product contains: a low-sugar item has 5g or less per 100g, while more than 15g per 100g is considered high in sugar.

It’s surprising how much sugar is hiding in seemingly healthy products – a muesli bar, for example, contains around 1.5 teaspoons of sugar, while a glass of fruit juice holds 6 teaspoons.

A 600ml bottle of sports drink packs 9 teaspoons of sugar and a frozen slushie can have as much as 12 teaspoons of sugar – double the amount you should consume in one day.

It’s also important to watch your salt consumption – too much sodium is linked to high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart disease.

The daily recommended intake for salt is 6g or less (2300mg or 2.3g of sodium). Nutrition panels often refer to sodium, not salt.

As a rule, look for products that contain 120mg or less of sodium. To work out how much salt is in a product, multiply the amount of sodium by 2.5.

Go for regular tests and medical check-ups

If you’re healthy, an annual check-up at the doctor to test for things like blood pressure and cholesterol is all you need, but there are a range of other important tests you should make sure to stay up to date.

Women should have five-yearly cervical screening tests and do monthly self-checks of their breasts, while men should perform regular testicular self-examinations.

Both men and women should regularly check their skin for any moles or spots that change size, shape or colour.

A number of tests are recommended once you turn 50, including mammograms for women prostate checks for men, and the faecal occult blood test (FOBT), which checks for bowel cancer symptoms.

Drink more water

Staying hydrated and consuming enough fluids is very important for your health and wellbeing. It helps balance your blood sugar, helps relieve headaches and promotes healthy skin.

If you are not drinking enough water every day and your body becomes dehydrated, it can cause tiredness, dizziness, dry eyes and skin, muscle cramps, low energy and more.

Health specialists commonly recommend eight glasses, which equals closely to 2 litres or half a gallon of water per day.

Get enough sleep

If there’s one thing you shouldn’t scrimp on, it’s sleep. It changes from person to person, but an adult needs seven or eight hours of sleep each night.

A healthy sleeping routine will help you get a good night’s sleep: try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, go screen-free for 30 minutes before you hit the sack and steer clear of caffeine and alcohol in the evening.

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