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Elevate Your Mood: The Mental Health Benefits of Physical Activity

Elevate Your Mood: The Mental Health Benefits of Physical Activity

As we transition towards warmer days, shorter nights, and blooming snowdrops, it’s time to shift from the winter wardrobe into the active wear. It’s time for more sun, more fun, and more hours spent outdoors, for both your physical and mental wellbeing.

The positive link between physical activity and mental health – especially when incorporating nature – cannot be overstated. Incorporating movement as treatment has been a legitimate recommendation from researchers for decades now, given the large (and growing) body of evidence supporting the positive relationship between nearly all forms of physical activity and improvements in mood, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Yet the formal implementation of physical activity as an element of clinical practice has been slow.

Why does movement do us so much good? And to what degree can a walk in the woods really help with cases of severe depression, social anxiety, or even schizophrenia? Let’s take a brief look at the evidence.

The Link Between Exercise and Mental Health

Our mental well-being is, at least partially, an expression of our physical health. Improving your physical health indirectly affects your mood and mindset for the better. Healthier eating habits, better sleep, and more exercise each have an immediate positive impact on markers of mental health, such as mood.

But taking care of your body doesn’t just help you mitigate a bad mood. The benefits of exercise are especially pronounced in cases of mental disorder, where negative thinking or feelings of anxiety can occur for no physical or external reason. People who experience mental health issues experience a greater boost in mood and mental wellbeing when going out for a walk in the woods.

A meta-analysis of the research into the benefits of forest bathing – a Japanese term for spending time in nature – showed that, across the board, adults with mental health issues and/or chronic health problems experienced the greatest benefit in mood and mental health markers after partaking in outdoor activities, especially in forest environments.

A summary of the evidence on the link between exercise and mental health further shows that the research we have indicates that any increases in physical activity tend to decrease mental health burden, especially when exercise becomes routine.

In a study analyzing existing data on the effects of exercise on self-reported numbers of bad mental health days in over 1.2 million individuals, those who exercised regularly had over 40 percent fewer bad days in a month than those who didn’t, when matching for all other physical and sociodemographic factors. Any form of exercise was associated with a lower mental health burden, and the largest associations were seen in those who participated in team sports, followed by cycling and gym activities.

The mechanisms behind how exercise improve mental health are varied.

Research indicates that exercise improves brain health, and that the primary driving force behind the benefits of exercise for conditions like depression and schizophrenia lie in the neurobiology of how physical activity improves the production and release of proteins that encourage the growth of new brain cells, as well as the release of mood-regulating hormones, and potentially better sleep as a result of frequent, regimented movement.

Exercise as Complementary to Medication and Therapy

The bulk of existing research recommends exercise as a clinical tool in the treatment of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, co-occurring substance use, and even conditions like schizophrenia. Exercise as a treatment tool seems to be even more potent when combined with existing modalities, particularly talk therapy and medication.

It’s important to note that you don’t have to become an athlete or dedicate your life to sport to gain the biggest mental health boost from working out. Exercise boosts mental health regardless of how hard you work out, and you don’t need to spend much time getting your reps in to get the most out of it – mentally speaking, at least.

Furthermore, incorporating other elements of mental health treatment into your exercise programming – such as mindfulness, in the form of yoga – might further boost the mental benefit of your workout time. Working with a physical trainer at Amend Treatment can also help you take the guesswork out of setting up an exercise plan and give you the freedom to focus on the movements themselves.

FAQs About Integrating Exercise into Daily Life

How much exercise do you really need?

When it comes to your mental wellbeing, the bulk of the benefits of exercise can be realized with about 45 minutes of physical activity a day, about five days per week. This can range from getting your steps in to training for a team sport. If you’re planning to stay active for a long time, it also helps to try and find an activity that you enjoy or can even be passionate about.

Is mental wellbeing correlated with fitness?

The interesting thing about mental health and physical activity is that you don’t have to become an athlete to benefit from it. There is a very weak correlation between being physically stronger or fitter and being happier. In other words, it’s not about how hard you train – it’s the act of training on its own.

What’s the best kind of exercise for mental health?

While team sports made the largest difference, this might be explained by the complementary social benefit of playing in a team, versus performing a solitary sport. Furthermore, there may be minor differences in the effectiveness of indoor or outdoor exercise, as well as exercising in nature (the park, the woods, the beach) versus an urban environment.

If exercise is good for your mental health, are athletes happier than the average person?

While exercise is great for mental health, competitive sports can be a burden to some people. Cases of depression are not uncommon among athletes, as are instances of burnout and high stress. While the data on elite athletes is limited, we do know that they tend to struggle with more mental health issues than the average population. The burden of expectation and the emotional weight of needing to win can outweigh the benefits of physical activity, especially when a sport becomes a livelihood.

That being said, the team sport distinction rears its head again in existing research: studies show that professional athletes in team sports are generally happier than those in individual sports.

In Summary

The positive correlation between exercise and mental health is well-documented, supported by an extensive body of research. Even brief excursions into nature, such as forest bathing, have shown remarkable benefits for individuals grappling with mental health issues.

Exercise also serves as a powerful complementary modality to traditional treatments like therapy and medication, often amplifying their effectiveness. Incorporating movement into one’s routine, whether through team sports or sessions with a PT, can significantly reduce the burden of mental health issues. Moreover, the integration of mindfulness practices into exercise routines (such as through yoga) can further enhance the mental health benefits.

We at Amend Treatment are dedicated to helping you harness the benefits of exercise for your mood, mental health, and general wellbeing.

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