Factsheet: Physical Activity and Mental Health
This factsheet is available in a downloadable PDF here.
Table of Contents
How can Physical Activity Promote Good Mental Health and Wellbeing?
1) Research has shown that regular physical activity is as good for the brain as for the rest of the body with a number of positive neuro-chemical effects that also make physical activity good for the mind.
2) People who work to keep themselves healthy, fit and physically active tend to have less Mental Health problems. This may be especially the case where there is some supportive context so that the individual either sustains or develops support networks and friends through the physical activity they are involved in.
3) Combined with a good diet the real chemical effects of physical activity/exercise on the brain may be very similar to those actually produced by some medications for Mental Health problems, especially the anti-depressants. The only side effects of regular physical activity/exercise are better general health and wellbeing.
4) Almost all physical activity seems to be beneficial on Mental Health and wellbeing from walking (especially in woodland) to weight-training although most of the research to date has been done on aerobics – (see the book ‘SPARK’ for more about the wonderful effects of physical activity on the brain.)
5) In some research it appears that exercise alone (if regular and maintained) was as effective as talking therapies alone. (We already know that in depression psychotherapy is as effective as medication in the short term and more effective in the long term.)
6) In practice any physical activity is useful, if enjoyable, regular, demanding in some way that would positively effect general health, and maintained (exercise is for life not just for Christmas or New Year resolutions).
7) For some people with Mental Health problems competitive exercise or sports might be counterproductive and not altogether a good thing. However physical activities that emphasise cooperation and/or partner work do appear to be good. This could vary from supportive partner work weight-training in the gym to Scottish Country Dancing, where everyone is cooperating – still getting it wrong and everyone is too busy enjoying them selves to care!
8) In theory, based on the neuroscience, the best exercises would be those that challenge coordination symmetrically, like dancing (ballroom to Scottish Country), Tai Chi, Martial Arts, the initial effects of weight-training, ‘Boxercise’ etc.
9) In terms of what you body needs, and presumably your brain and mind also, you need variety.
- Physical activities like swimming, running, dancing/aerobics etc. that increase your stamina.
- Physical activities like weight-training that increase your strength and literally make your muscles younger.
- Physical activities that improve your whole body coordination and balance, like dancing, Tai Chi etc.
- Physical activities that help you keep or even improve your flexibility, like Yoga for example.
10) Physical activities that are fun and progressively demanding in some way, especially for your coordination, may be the very best. (See the books ‘Play As If Your Life Depended On It’ and ‘The Exuberant Animal’ by Frank Forencich.)
Good for the Mind and Body
There are a great number of books and good research on the positive effects of physical activity regarding Mental Health. So much so that the SIGN Guideline for the non-chemical management of mild to moderate depression give physical activity the same rating as psychotherapy.
The actual science and theory underpinning the use of physical activity is fascinating and incredibly complex, so complex that scientists are just beginning to get some real understanding.
Physical activity is not as easy to take as a tablet and has to be kept up throughout life to maintain the full benefits for physical and mental health. The side effects are a fitter body and a longer, healthier life with less pain. Anyone can find some form of physical activity that they can do and gradually improve at.