Mental Health and Exercise

By Ben Southam - Accredited Exercise Physiologist

By Ben Southam - Accredited Exercise Physiologist

Mental Health has been thrust into the spotlight over the past few years and with good reason too. Recent statistics show that 45% of Australianswill suffer a mental health condition in their lifetime while right now 1 million Australians are suffering depression while a further 2 million Australians are suffering from anxiety.

We continually see great work being done by organisations such as beyond blue & headspace which have changed the mindset of the general population and demonstrated that Mental health needs to be respected as a health condition similar to that of a torn ACL or type 2 diabetes instead of frowned upon like it may have been in the past. It is through this great work that new research and treatment options have become available to assist those suffering from depression and anxiety.

From this, further exploration has been done on the benefits exercise can play in improving mental health. Research has shown that exercise may be just as effective, if not, more effective than medication and psychotherapy at reducing symptoms associated with mental illnesses. During and after exercise, our body releases chemicals, including serotonin and endorphins, which act as our ‘feel good’ hormones, making us feel more energetic and positive.

So what else has research found?

  • Just one session of exercise can have the ability to lower anxiety, having similar effects to medication

  • Exercise can lower anxiety long-term and make you feel calmer and in control.

  • When suffering from depression, research has shown that exercise can halve a persons perceived feeling of depression and more than 40% of people will stay that way for at least 3 months.

  • Active individuals are also 45% less likely to develop symptoms of depression.

  • Improved mood and self-esteem

  • Decreased stress levels

  • Increased social participation and feeling of belonging

  • Improved sleep quality

As Exercise Physiologists we will always strive to assist all people in improving their quality of life and general “healthiness” by assisting people with their physical activities levels, knowledge of exercise benefits and health coaching. So how much exercise should be done?

Just 20-40 minutes of aerobic exercise (i.e. brisk walk, jogging, riding, swimming) can be enough to improve anxiety and mood for several hours. Non-aerobic activity (i.e. yoga, strength training and relaxation) has also been shown to reduce anger, depression and confusion. Exercising regularly (daily) will have a more positive effect on mental health.

Never exercised before or starting back up? Top tips:

  • Start small (15 minutes of walking per day) and build up gradually (to 30 min per day)

  • Select an activity you enjoy

  • Exercise with a friend or family member

  • Choose places that you are familiar with and don’t increase anxiety levels

  • Use a pedometer or other apps to count you daily steps. (aim for 10,000)

With new research continually coming out in regards to exercise benefits and mental health, it is time to identify that this modality should form a vital role in helping people manage mental health appropriately.

“Physical activity is the most natural and accessible means to improve mental health”

– Poirel et al 2017

Refer to the links below for more information on exercise and mental illness: