The Natural Mood Booster

Globally, over 1 billion people meet the criteria for a diagnosable mental illness such as depression or anxiety. In Australia, at least half of us will experience a mental health condition in our lifetimes.

As a society, we often don’t think about taking care of our mental health in the same way we do our physical health. This is starting to change, particularly as more and more research shows we can influence our mental health through exercise.

Exercise: The Key To Good Mental Health

Many research studies have shown that exercise is beneficial for our mental health in a number of ways. Exercise has been found to have acute benefits on mood – think of that euphoria feeling we get just after we finish a workout.

It doesn’t have to be intense, sweat-inducing exercise either. Studies have reported positive effects from light and moderate intensity exercise too. Even short bouts of just 10 minutes at a time may be effective for improving mood.

Everyone can experience these positive effects. Not only does exercise help reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress in people who have a diagnosed mental disorder - it can also benefit the mental wellbeing of healthy people.

What’s more, exercise may also have a protective effect on our mental health. A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that regular exercise can help prevent future depression.

How Does It Work?

Exercise can affect your mental health in many ways. Here are a few examples.

  • Dopamine gets a boost, improving mood, feelings of wellness and motivation, and jump-starting our attention system.

  • Serotonin also increases. This acts on the limbic system, improving how we perceive and regulate our emotions.

  • Getting active can boost our self-esteem (a component of depression), thanks to norepinephrine and also because we feel a sense of accomplishment.

  • When you exercise in groups, you experience social connection and a sense of community.·        

How Much And What Types Of Exercise?

The best exercise is the kind of exercise that you enjoy doing, that you can maintain and that has your body’s longevity in mind. Different types of exercise may bring about different responses, both physically and mentally.

While no one type of exercise is better than the other, we should ideally aim for a balanced exercise routine. This means a combination of resistance training, where we’re strengthening our muscles and joints under load, and aerobic training, where our cardiorespiratory system is challenged.

Activities such as team sports, cycling, aerobic exercise and gym workouts have the highest associations with good mental health, according to a large observational study in 2018. Resistance training has a significant impact on reducing depressive symptoms when done for bouts of 45 minutes or less.

How much exercise should you aim for? The Lancet study suggested that exercising for 30-60 minutes, three to five times per week, is associated with better mental health. Exercise is particularly beneficial as a treatment for mental health when supervised by a health professional with specific training in exercise prescription, like an exercise physiologist.

So if you or someone you know has been struggling with their mental health, make sure to get on those shoes and get active!