Deakin medical student Jeremy Taylor highlights the benefits of staying active for your mental health.
By Jeremy Taylor, Deakin Medical Student & Active Geelong Movement Champion
When our mental resilience is tested through events like pandemics, relationship issues, job loss and injury it can place a significant burden on our mental and physical health. It’s important during this time we place an extra focus on maintaining our wellbeing. As young medical students, my peers and I understand the importance of physical wellbeing and staying ‘fit’, but I question how many of us take the time to focus specifically on our mental wellbeing.
The role of physical activity in mental health
Although there are a number of ways to maintain mental wellbeing, this article focuses on the role of physical activity. Being active is not only great for physical wellbeing, but evidence highlights that it can greatly improve our mental wellbeing by raising self-esteem and cognitive function, as well as providing distraction, self-efficacy and social interaction.1,2
Research suggests that people who exercise regularly and consistently have improved mental wellbeing and lower rates of mental illness 1,3. Exercise has been proven to improve sleep patterns and help individuals to manage stress 4. Studies have shown that exercise can be used to treat mild to moderate depression, with some evidence concluding the that effects of exercise are similar to both cognitive behavioural therapy and antidepressant medication.3
How much physical activity is needed?
Whilst research indicates a curvilinear relationship between exercise levels and mental wellbeing, the evidence highlights that the levels of activity required to achieve benefits are not drastic.1 A recent study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%.5 Anything that can get your body moving and increases your heart rate, be it playing team sports with friends, dancing or swimming, will help to release stress and give you a better chance at improving your mood.
Why does physical activity work?
But why does physical activity have such a positive effect on our mental wellbeing? There are several theories.1-4 One belief is that exercise can increase blood circulation to the brain, which may influence the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and thus our physiological stress pathway.6 Exercise is also thought to promote the release of feel-good chemicals, beta-endorphins and monoamines, in your brain, promote neural growth and reduce inflammation.6
But what good is knowing these benefits if we struggle to incorporate physical activity in our daily routine? Statistics estimate that today over a third of Australian adults aged 16-64 are not getting enough physical activity to benefit their health. Why do so many of us still struggle to stay active? Unfortunately, far too often, life gets in the way. We may lack the time, motivation, energy, money, access and supports, which makes being active difficult to maintain.
Top tips to maintain physical activity
To help you overcome these barriers and share in the benefits of physical activity, I have called upon my peers to provide their tips and tricks to staying active. These people, like many of you, continually face obstacles to staying active such as work, family, study and travel. I have sought the advice of others, because everyone’s life is different. Here are their top tips.
- Have a reason to exercise – I exercise because it allows me to be the best version of myself
- Find a way to move that you enjoy, you’ll stick with it longer and it becomes a pleasure not a chore, make it social if that’s your thing
- If you’re injured find a physical activity that you can still do while you recover
- Schedule the time to move – put it in your calendar, do it early in the day, combine phone calls and walking, use your bike or walk for transport
- Use motivation tools – be active with others, keep a record of what you do, track using a fitness device, set goals
- Change your mindset – challenge your inner narrative from “I’m not an exerciser” to “I’m a person who jogs/walks/does yoga”
- Find a physical activity that suits your lifestyle – online classes to do at home, use the gym near you, train with someone reliable
- Be kind to yourself – sometimes going for a walk on the beach is better for your mental health and relationships than another session at the gym. Try not to compare yourself with others – do what you can with the time you have
- Prioritise physical activity – it’s great for your physical can mental health
- Start small with a habit or routine that you can achieve easily then gradually build on that
I hope this can help you on your quest to be active. Joining Active Geelong as a Movement Champion is a great way to get started. Always remember that any physical activity is better than none. So, go out and enjoy that 15-minute walk, take some time for yourself and clear the head. You deserve it!
This article originally appeared in the Deakin student magazine CaRE and has been adapted and reproduced with permission from the author Jeremy Taylor.
- 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
- Sammi R Chekroud, Ralitza Gueorguieva, Amanda B Zheutlin, Martin Paulus, Harlan M Krumholz, John H Krystal, Adam M Chekroud. Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1·2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: a cross-sectional study. The Lancet Psychiatry, Volume 5, Issue 9,2018, Pages 739-746. ISSN 2215-0366. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(18)30227-X.
- Siri Kvam, Catrine Lykkedrang Kleppe, Inger Hilde Nordhus, Anders Hovland. Exercise as a treatment for depression: A meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, Volume 202,2016, Pages 67-86. ISSN 0165-0327. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2016.03.063.
- Herring MP, O’Connor PJ, Dishman RK. The Effect of Exercise Training on Anxiety Symptoms Among Patients: A Systematic Review. Arch Intern Med.2010;170(4):321–331. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2009.530
- Choi KW, Chen C, Stein MB, et al. Assessment of Bidirectional Relationships Between Physical Activity and Depression Among Adults:A 2-Sample Mendelian Randomization Study. JAMA Psychiatry. 2019;76(4):399–408. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2018.4175
- Lanfranco F, Strasburger CJ (eds): Sports Endocrinology. Front Horm Res. Basel, Karger, 2016, vol 47, pp 12-26. doi: 10.1159/000445149