We all know that exercise and physical activity has benefits for our physical health, but physical activity also has psychological benefits. Being physically active isn’t necessarily going for a gym membership or running marathons. Finding an activity you enjoy that can give you a goal to aim for and a sense of purpose will also have mental health benefits, enhance relationships as well as lead to a healthier and happier life overall.

How Active Do I Need to be to See Its Mental Health Benefits?
Any amount of physical activity can help. If you want to start exercising, start small and build up slowly. Try brisk walking, mowing the lawn, dancing, swimming, following an exercise video or online class, trying a new sport or anything that gets your body moving.

Adults can aim to do 150 minutes of moderate activity a week or 75 minutes of vigorous activity a week. You can also start with doing strength building exercises at least two days a week (NHS, 2021). This could include yoga, pilates, weight lifting, wheeling a wheelchair or carrying heavy shopping bags.

Think about your current fitness levels, how much time you have to exercise, and what feels realistic to you. Anything you do to get active and reduce the amount of time you spend sitting or lying down is good.

Mental Health Benefits of Physical Activity

  • Reduced Stress

    • Physical activities like jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, and dancing, have been shown to reduce stress, anxiety and depression. (Ashish Sharma, 2006).
    • Physical activity increases blood circulation to the brain and influences the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis which in turn influences the physiological reactivity to stress.
    • It stimulates the production of neuro-hormones like norepinephrine, which not only improve cognition and mood but improve thinking clouded by stressful events.
    • Physical activity also forces the body’s central and sympathetic nervous systems to communicate with one another, improving the body’s overall ability to respond to stress.
  • Increased Self-esteem and Self-confidence

    • On a very basic level, physical fitness can boost self-esteem and improve positive self-image.
    • Regardless of weight, size, gender or age, exercise can quickly elevate a person’s perception of his or her attractiveness, that is, self-worth.
  • Better Sleep

    • Physical activity increases body temperature, which can have calming effects on the mind.
    • It also helps regulate your circadian rhythm, our bodies’ built-in alarm clock that controls when we feel tired and when we feel alert.
  • Brain Boost

    • Cardiovascular activity creates new brain cells — a process called neurogenesis—and improves overall brain performance
    • Physical activity may also boost creativity and mental energy.
  • Prevention of Cognitive Decline

    • Working out, especially between age 25 and 45, boosts the chemicals in the brain that support and prevent degeneration of the hippocampus, an important part of the brain for memory and learning.
  • Help Control Addiction

    • The brain releases dopamine, the “reward chemical” in response to any form of pleasure, be that exercise, sex, drugs, alcohol or food.
    • People may become addicted to dopamine and dependent on substances that produce it like alcohol or drugs.
    • Short exercise sessions can effectively distract drug or alcohol addicts by de-prioritizing their cravings (at least in the short term).