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The mental health benefits of exercise

People who exercise regularly know that it does a lot more than just help you lose weight.

Quite simply, exercise makes you feel better. It’s an odd thing, considering that to attain this state of feeling better requires you to first endure sweat, stress on your body, a strong chance of cold and heat and dust or rain, as well as soreness, tenderness and even potential injury.

Yet most people will tell you that they feel good after a jog, a swim, a trip to the gym or a footy training session.

Why is that?


The link between exercise and mental health

There is a link between exercise and mental health[1]. Most experts agree that exercise does improve mood, however, the exact mechanism between how physical health helps mental health hasn’t quite been pinpointed.

What has been extensively studied is that exercise releases chemicals in your brain that affect your outlook and how you feel. Chemicals like endorphins can lift your mood while serotonin is a neurotransmitter that can regulate appetite, digestion, memory, sleep and libido.


The link between sickness and mental health

Did you know that there is a link between physical illness and mental health? One study by Victoria University found that a staggering 2.5 million of us have both a mental and physical condition[2].

The sobering conclusion was that there was a clear link between the two, especially among people with chronic pain or chronic illness. The study found that not only are you more likely to develop physical health problems if you have a mental health condition — the reverse was also true.

It is not so surprising then that locations which have a higher incidence of poor physical health among the population also have higher rates of mental health disorders.

A study for the City of Moreland, in Melbourne’s north-west, found a range of preventable health conditions were higher than the Victorian average[3].

Obesity among women, for example, was 22.5 per cent, whereas it was 17.2 per cent across Victoria. Diabetes prevalence was 6.7 per hundred, compared to 4.7 across Victoria; and 24.4 per cent of adolescents smoked, compared to 17.7 per cent across Victoria.

Unsurprisingly, public hospital admissions for mental health conditions were 10.1 per 1000 — the Victorian average was 7.9. There were 53.1 homeless per 10,000, compared to the Victorian average of 42.6; and 14.4 per cent of people were experiencing high levels of psychological distress, compared to the 11.1 per cent average.


Exercise and depression: a case in point

This brings us back to the original point: better physical health tends to result in better mental health.

A good example of how exercise can benefit both physical and mental health was revealed in a large 2017 international study. Led by the Black Dog Institute, it suggested that even one hour a week of exercise can help with depression.

The researchers analysed the exercise levels and depression symptoms of nearly 34,000 Norwegians over 11 years and found that 12 per cent of depression cases could have been prevented with small amounts of exercise[4].

When you factor in all the additional physical benefits of regular exercise, like reducing heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, the value of exercise is clear.


But wait there’s more… further mental health benefits of exercise

The benefits of dealing with depression are just some of the ways that regular exercise can help you. Here are some of the many other ways in which it can improve your wellbeing.


It breaks a cycle of stress and worry

Exercise is a healthy distraction if you’re in a cycle of negative worries and thoughts. You don’t need to conduct an 11-year study to realise that you’re less likely to stew about stresses in your life while you’re exercising. When your mind and body is preoccupied with running, lifting weights, or just enjoying a brisk walk, concerns that have been eating away at you tend to take a back seat.


You’re more likely to feel optimistic

A study from the University of Queensland suggested that people who exercise regularly have higher levels of optimism. It found that exercise boosted the participants’ mood and tendency to look on the bright side.


Exercise is often a social activity that reduces loneliness

Exercising often puts you amongst other people, reducing loneliness and social isolation. One famous study — the so-called Grant and Glueck study — continuously measured the level of happiness and wellbeing of two groups of people over a colossal 80-year period. While its main finding was that the key to happiness lay in good relationships, it also made another startling discovery: people who felt lonely and isolated were more likely to suffer from poor physical health — and they were also more likely to die sooner.


It helps you sleep

The benefits of sleep are well known, as are the adverse effects of not getting enough of it.

Physically moving bodies require rest. Exercise also has the predictable effect of making you tired. It’s clear that a body that needs rest and is tired is more likely to get a better night’s sleep.


How much exercise is recommended?

You don’t have to hit the gym five nights a week just to get the benefits of regular exercise.

For adults aged 18 to 64, the Department of Health recommends being active on most days of the week. They suggest starting with two and a half hours of moderate physical activity a week and increasing it to five hours. Alternatively, one and a quarter hours of vigorous activity that increases to two and a half hours each week is also good.

If you aren’t doing any exercise at the moment and want to start, try doing a little and then steadily build up. Exercise doesn’t have to be extremely vigorous and if you happen to get discouraged or demotivated, remember that even a little bit of physical activity is always better than none at all.


Concerned? Talk to a professional counsellor on 1300 096 269. It’s free to people in north, western and central Melbourne and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.




[4] Exercise and the Prevention of Depression: Results of the HUNT Cohort Study. Samuel B. Harvey, F.R.A.N.Z.C.P., Ph.D., Simon Øverland, Ph.D., Stephani L. Hatch, Ph.D., Simon Wessely, F.R.C.Psych., M.D., Arnstein Mykletun, Ph.D., Matthew Hotopf, F.R.C.Psych., Ph.D.


The CAREinMIND blog is delivered by On the Line. The views in each post do not necessarily reflect those of North Western Melbourne Primary Health Network.