Physical activity can have countless health benefits. From maintaining a healthy body weight to reducing the risk of bone fractures, physical fitness can reduce the risk of developing many illnesses such as high blood pressure, heart disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, and even cancer, to name a few.6 Here are some reasons why physical fitness can also be good for mental health.
What does the research say?
The psychological benefits of fitness are often overlooked.3 Yet, its positive impact on mental health and wellbeing is well-documented in research, with evidence that fitness is beneficial to mental health.4
Fitness can act both as a preventive measure or as a form of therapy.2, 5 Fitness may prevent the development of some forms of mental illness or reduce the symptoms in individuals who have been diagnosed, which improves the quality of life. 6 This has been found across all age groups. 12
Cardiorespiratory fitness and mental health
Several complex mechanisms are involved in the interaction between fitness and mental health.2, 9 Cardiorespiratory fitness may help prevent relapse and improve symptoms of mild depression.2, 5 This is particularly useful for people with prior depressive illnesses or at a high risk of developing depressive illnesses.7 It also aids in reducing anxiety, stress, tension, and even recovery from an addiction such as drugs, alcohol, and smoking. 4, 5, 8
Leisure-time activity and mental health
Research highlights that even a low amount of ‘leisure-time’ physical activity may promote mental health and prevent mental disorders.13 Leisure-time physical activity, rather than physical fitness, seems to be strongly correlated with positive mental health. Results from a study done on children found that fitness was not only associated with children’s mental health but also contributed to greater resilience and lower anxiety.15
What about depression?
Depression is the most widely researched area concerning the relationship between fitness and mental health.8 One study examined the association between the number of years of team sport participation and depressive symptoms of adolescents during early adulthood.1 The study found that adolescents who had consistent participation in sports during high school reported lower depression levels in early adulthood. Other studies have also reported that young athletes who participate in team sports are at a lower risk of depressive symptoms than athletes in individual sports.4
Another study examined the mental health and regular physical activity of university students and explored the potential health benefits of short-term aerobic exercise.6 Results confirm the relationship between regular physical activity and mental health and found a significant decrease in self-reported depression and perceived stress among university students.
Exercise and other mental health concerns
Research also shows that there is a significant reduction in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) severity among individuals with this disorder after completing two weeks of aerobic exercise.10 Patients with schizophrenia reported decreased stress and anxiety levels and an overall increase in wellbeing after exercise, compared to patients who did not exercise.11
The most recent study conducted by researchers in the United Kingdom (UK) found that the link between fitness and mental health may be even stronger than previously thought.14 This study reported a significant link between lower levels of fitness and risk factors for mental health disorders.
Benefits: How does fitness improve mental health?
Maintaining a fitness routine, even if it’s a low-intensity exercise, improves mental health. 5 There are several reasons why physical activity and maintaining physical fitness can be beneficial for mental health and psychological well-being: 3, 7, 8, 9
- Improves sleep
- Boosts self-esteem and confidence
- Supports better cognitive function
- Builds self-mastery and self-efficacy
- Creates a distraction from negative and worrying thoughts and a break away from daily stressors
- Reduces stress and acts as an anxiety relief
- Offers a sense of purpose and accomplishment
- Leads to an improvement in mood state
- Acts as a source of social support, particularly social physical activities (such as exercise classes)
- Increases energy and stamina
- Reduces tiredness, which can increase mental alertness
- Promotes the release of endorphins
- Provides discipline
- Reduces inflammation which helps people suffering from mood disorders
Tips for being active
Researchers emphasize that the physical activity you choose should be one you enjoy doing; otherwise, sustaining the routine would be difficult.8 Furthermore, your fitness goals should be to improve your well-being rather than your appearance.7 It is recommended to integrate physical activity into your everyday routines.
It can be challenging to start and maintain a fitness plan. The following list of tips can help:
- Broaden your understanding of what counts as exercise and find an activity you like. 8 Exercising should not feel like a chore. Examples include brisk walking around the neighborhood, shoveling snow, gardening, mowing the lawn, cycling, swimming, or dancing. Such activities increase blood flow to the brain and can reduce anxiety and depression. 3
- Prioritize your health and commit to regular, fun practice. Be consistent.
- Set reasonable goals and adapt your plan to your own needs and abilities.
- Start slowly to avoid physical injury and gradually increase the intensity and pace of exercise based on your comfort level.
- Change the routine if your motivation fades. Explore alternative options.
The evidence-based research on the effects of fitness on mental health is extensive, well-established, and still growing. Research recurrently suggests that regular physical activity, irrespective of its intensity, can significantly improve mental health and lessen symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress.9 Fitness can be a viable preventative measure and a way to improve mental health.
- Sabiston, C. M., Jewett, R., Ashdown-Franks, G., Belanger, M., Brunet, J., O’Loughlin, E., & O’Loughlin, J. (2016). Number of years of team and individual sport participation during adolescence and depressive symptoms in early adulthood. Journal of sport and exercise psychology, 38(1), 105-110.
- Kandola A, Ashdown-Franks G, Stubbs B, Osborn DPJ, Hayes JF. The association between cardiorespiratory fitness and the incidence of common mental health disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Affect Disord. 2019 Oct 1;257:748-757. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2019.07.088. Epub 2019 Jul 30. PMID: 31398589; PMCID: PMC6997883.
- Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for mental health. Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry, 8(2), 106. https://doi.org/10.4088/pcc.v08n0208a
- Elbe, A. M., Lyhne, S. N., Madsen, E. E., & Krustrup, P. (2019). Is regular physical activity a key to mental health? Commentary on “Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1.2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: A cross-sectional study”, by Chekroud et al., published in Lancet Psychiatry. Journal of sport and health science, 8(1), 6–7. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jshs.2018.11.005
- Pascoe M, Bailey AP, Craike M, et al. Physical activity and exercise in youth mental health promotion: a scoping review. BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine 2020;6:e000677. doi: 10.1136/bmjsem-2019-000677
- Herbert, C., Meixner, F., Wiebking, C., & Gilg, V. (2020). Regular Physical Activity, Short-Term Exercise, Mental Health, and Well-Being Among University Students: The Results of an Online and a Laboratory Study. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 509. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00509
- Stanton R, Happell B, Reaburn P. The mental health benefits of regular physical activity, and its role in preventing future depressive illness. Nursing: Research and Reviews. 2014;4:45-53
- Biddle S. (2016). Physical activity and mental health: evidence is growing. World psychiatry: official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 15(2), 176–177. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20331
- Mikkelsen K, Stojanovska L, Polenakovic M, Bosevski M, Apostolopoulos V. Exercise and mental health. Maturitas. 2017 Dec;106:48-56. doi: 10.1016/j.maturitas.2017.09.003. Epub 2017 Sep 7. PMID: 29150166.
- Fetzner MG, Asmundson GJ. Aerobic Exercise Reduces Symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Cogn Behav Ther. 2015;44(4):301-13. doi: 10.1080/16506073.2014.916745. Epub 2014 Jun 9. PMID: 24911173.
- Vancampfort, D., De Hert, M., Knapen, J., Wampers, M., Demunter, H., Deckx, S., Maurissen, K., & Probst, M. (2011). State anxiety, psychological stress and positive well-being responses to yoga and aerobic exercise in people with schizophrenia: a pilot study. Disability and Rehabilitation, 33(8), 684–689. https://doi.org/10.3109/09638288.2010.509458
- Anderson, E., & Shivakumar, G. (2013). Effects of exercise and physical activity on anxiety. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 4, 27–27. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00027
- Appelqvist-Schmidlechner, K., Vaara, J., Mäkinen, J., Vasankari, T., & Kyröläinen, H. (2017). Relationships between leisure time physical activity, physical fitness and mental health among young adult males. European Psychiatry, 41(S1), S179–S179. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eurpsy.2017.01.2085
- “Research Finds Stronger Link Between Physical Fitness and Mental Health.” APTA Magazine, vol. 13, no. 1, 2021, p. 51. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A653597059/AONE?u=lond95336&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=79a366a1. Accessed 16 July 2021.
- Li, Y., Xia, X., Meng, F., & Zhang, C. (2021). The association of physical fitness with mental health in children: A serial multiple mediation model. Current Psychology (New Brunswick, N.J.), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-020-01327-6
- Image by Brent Olson from Pixabay