When we discuss the advantages of regular exercise, it’s usually the benefits to physical well-being that take centre stage, and for obvious reasons.
Most are aware that physical exertion can aid cardiovascular health and protect against a plethora of hypertensive conditions. These reasons, alongside wanting to lose weight and improve the way we look, are among the chief motivations for embarking on an exercise program.
But perhaps lesser known and lesser discussed are the benefits regular exertion can have on mental wellbeing, which are numerous. In fact, courses of regular exercise are becoming a more utilized tool in the treatment of mental health issues, for a variety of reasons.
As we’ll discuss, regular exercise needn’t constitute arduous back-to-back shifts in the gym. Just 30 minutes a day can have a range of benefits on mental health.
Firstly, physical exertion is thought to stimulate the release and activity of endorphins. This process, referred to as the ‘endorphin hypothesis’ and explained by Anderson and Shivakumar as the ‘binding of [endogenous opioids] to their receptor sites in the brain’, has been explored in several analyses.
Besides their analgesic effect on physical pain, the increased activity of endorphins during exercise is also credited for improving the mood of the person practicing it. For instance, one study examining patients living with clinical depression found a convincing link between 30 minutes of aerobic exercise performed on a daily basis and “substantial” mood improvement.
In addition to the stimulation of endorphins, exercise is also known to have a direct effect on the presence of cortisol and adrenaline in the body. These are natural stress hormones, often referred to as the “fight or flight” chemicals which can be triggered by a range of stimuli, including danger or emotional trauma. In persons with chronic stress or anxiety, levels of these hormones may be continually raised.
Intense physical exertion is thought to acutely increase cortisol levels, which is perhaps unsurprising due to the strain the body is being put under.
However, performing 30 minutes of low intensity exercise has been linked by one study with reduced cortisol levels.
Furthermore, regular exercise has been associated with a decreased overall presence of cortisol levels in the long term, as the body will become more used to physical exertion and not need to produce as much. So for those who make a habit of exercise, their resting levels of these stress hormones may significantly decrease.
Another mental benefit of frequent physical activity is that it improves body image, and consequently this aids self-esteem.
One analysis undertaken by researchers at the University of Florida found that exercise at all levels had a positive effect on the way people felt about their bodies; and their results suggested that this wasn’t limited just to those who undertake exercise on a regular basis.
However, most will know from experience that one-off episodes of physical activity aren’t enough to sustain these feelings over the long term, and a person’s positive self-image may wear off after a prolonged period of inactivity.
Frequent exercise on the other hand contributes towards higher energy levels and better overall physical health; and the better we feel, the more comfortable we are about the way we look.
Increased social interaction
One particular advantage of participating in a team sport is that it raises our level of social contact with others.
Recently, I headed an investigation into the calorie-burning value of participating in 28 different olympic activities for 30 minutes each, which celebrated in particular the role team sports can play in helping someone to maintain a regular fitness regime.
The social interaction hypothesis is a term sometimes to describe the link between physical activity in a communal setting and improved mental health. By facilitating the development of social relationships through team and communal fitness activities, exercise can help to reduce feelings of isolation and provide a supportive environment.
Regular social contact is of course more beneficial, but team sports don’t have to account for every session of someone’s entire workout routine. Participating in just one communal activity per week can contribute towards better mental health.
Anderson, E. et al. ‘Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Anxiety.’ Frontiers in Psychiatry. 2013. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3632802/
Guszkowska, M. ‘Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood.’ Psychiatria Polska. 2004. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15518309
Dimeo, F. et al. ‘Benefits from aerobic exercise in patients with major depression: a pilot study.’ British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2001. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11273973/
Harvard Health Publications. ‘Exercising to Relax.’ Harvard Men’s Health Watch. 2011. http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax
Hill, EE. et al. ‘Exercise and circulating cortisol levels: the intensity threshold effect.’ Journal of endocrinological investigation. 2008. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18787373
Hausenblas, H. et al. ‘UF study: Exercise improves body image for fit and unfit alike.’ UF News. 2009. http://news.ufl.edu/archive/2009/10/uf-study-exercise-improves-body-image-for-fit-and-unfit-alike.html
Osborne, W. The Olympic Exercises That Burn The Most Calories. 2016. https://www.treated.com/dr-wayne-osborne/how-to-burn-calories-like-an-olympic-athlete