exercise for mental health

The connection between physical & mental health

We all have mental health, and we all know how much it matters. Some days we feel like we’re pro surfers on the wave that is life. Other days, it feels like we get dumped by the exact same wave and eat sand. The World Health Organisation defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his/her community”.

When you’re in a state of good mental health you are able to maintain a sense of calm, control and well-being, despite the ups and downs that the week throws at you. It’s this mental resilience that gets worn away when we don’t engage in activities to maintain our good state of mental health and well-being.

An important part of having good mental health is knowing that your mental health isn’t always good. It is normal to experience transient fluctuations in emotions and feelings in response a situation. It’s also normal to experience both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ moods.

It’s when we experience these bad moods for prolonged periods that a mental health condition may be diagnosed.

How common is poor mental health?

You might be surprised to know that globally over 1.1 billion people meet the criteria for a diagnosable mental disorder. In Australia alone, almost 12% of our population report suffering from a common mental disorder (e.g. depression, anxiety). We also know that these stats are hugely under-representative of the true prevalence of these conditions. Not only are depression and anxiety diagnosable disorders, but absolutely anyone can experience symptoms of either without meeting diagnostic criteria. It’s how we manage these low-level symptoms that really influences and dictates our overall state of mental health.

As a society, we don’t think about taking care of our mental health in the same way we do our physical health. This is starting to change, particularly as more and more research proves we can influence our mental health through exercise.


Exercise: natures mood booster

Research clearly demonstrates that exercise is beneficial for our mental health.  It can even help protect against a decline in mental health. Even short bouts of just 10 minutes have shown to be effective for improving mood! And it doesn’t have to be intense, sweat-inducing exercise either, studies have reported positive effects from light and moderate intensity exercise, too.

Exercise helps reduce overall symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. And it’s not only in people who have a diagnosed disorder. These changes occur in healthy people, as well as those experiencing a physical health condition (like cancer or diabetes). There’s no one that exercise doesn’t work on!

Why exercise works so well

How does exercise actually improve your mood? It has something to do with these ‘endorphins’ everyone talks about. When we exercise, we release around 40 types of endorphins (anti-stress hormones) which work on different parts of the brain, having all different effects.

Exercise also helps regulate the same neurotransmitters that antidepressants target. Additionally, mindful exercise may also be a way to help regulate our sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) back to parasympathetic (“rest and digest”). This allows our body to regulate our stress hormones, such as cortisol, and reduce inflammation – a key predictor of depression/anxiety .

• Releases norepinephrine, which wakes up the brain and gets it going
• Dopamine gets a boost; improving mood, feelings of wellness, motivation and jump-starts our attention system
• Increased serotonin acts on the limbic system improving how we perceive and regulate our emotions
• BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor) protects our neurons (nerve cells in the brain) against cortisol in areas that control mood, such as the hippocampus
• Improvements in self-esteem (a component of depression), thanks to norepinephrine but also because we feel a sense of accomplishment
• Social connection and a sense of community when we exercise in groups

Exercise recommendations:

Different types of exercise may illicit different responses, both physically and mentally. While no one type is better than the other, it is important to have a balanced exercise diet! Doing a mix of resistance training and and aerobic training is always recommended. Remember, the best type of exercise is the one you actually enjoy doing!

A recent study suggests that exercising for 30-60 minutes, 3-5 times per week is associated with better mental health. Activities such as team sports, cycling, aerobic exercise and gym have the highest associations with good mental health.

Resistance training (aka strength training) has shown to have a significant impact on reducing depressive symptoms when done for bouts of 45 minutes or less. This is particularly true when supervised by an exercise professional (like an Accredited Exercise Physiologist).

5 Tips from an Exercise Physiologist

1. Schedule exercise into your diary

Having an exercise routine can help build feelings of stability and consistency, key factors for maintenance.

2. Something is better than nothing!

Start small and build it up. Set goals that you can measure, don’t take too long to achieve and most of all are realistic!

3. Try to increase your incidental exercise

These are pragmatic ways to move more. Try parking further away, getting off the bus a stop earlier, taking the stairs or walking in your lunch break.

4. Have a balanced exercise diet

It doesn’t need to be all weights or all cardio! You can mix and match to suit the time you have available, your location and your mood. Sometimes 15 minutes of yoga or stretching at home might be exactly what you need.

5. See an exercise professional

Honestly, it’s worth the investment to see someone who can prescribe clinical exercise tailored exactly to your body, your lifestyle and your goals. Plus, we help motivate you and keep you accountable, and celebrate all the wins along the way with you! An Accredited Exercise Physiologist has the skills and knowledge to deal with the complexities of prescribing exercise for mental illness. To find one near you, click here.

Exercise Physiologist - Jacinta Brinsley

Jacinta Brinsley is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist at iNform Health and Fitness Solutions, and is currently completing a PHD on Mental Health.