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How exercise supports good mental health

Almost half of all Aussies experience mental health issues at least once in their lifetime, and experts are eager to find more treatment options. Exercise is one approach that has the potential to support both our bodies and our minds.

After being suddenly widowed with 2 young children, Michelle*, 37, from Sydney was struggling to cope. “I felt like I was drowning every day. I literally struggled to breathe sometimes when the huge weight of responsibility hit me,” she recalls. “Added to that was the crushing grief of losing my husband, and trying to help my girls with the loss of their daddy. It was too much.”

Diagnosed with depression, Michelle started regular grief counselling and was prescribed antidepressant medication. “After a while, I felt like I could handle life without the medication, but I still needed something to help me refocus when grief or stress crept up on me,” she says.

Encouraged by her counsellor to rediscover a childhood love of swimming, Michelle started ocean swimming 3 times a week. “Out in the ocean you have to breathe,” she explains. “It’s all I really think about when I’m out there. I think that control and absence of thinking about anything else really helped me on those tough days when I was running late for work or the kids were in a mood. I knew I could keep breathing.”

The link between exercise and improved mental health is significant, with research showing clear neurobiological, psychosocial and physical benefits. Exercise and Sports Science Australia labels exercise “crucial” for maintaining good mental health, while Better Health Victoria points to research that reveals those who exercise regularly are less likely to develop a mental illness.

But how does exercise help improve your mood, and are certain types of exercise more effective at improving your mental health than others?

Does exercise improve mental health?

“There is now convincing evidence that physical activity can lead to improvements in our mood, among those with and without a diagnosed mental health condition. In fact, the evidence is so clear, that physical activity is now recommended as a key adjunct treatment for people with poor mental health or mental illness,” says Dr Oscar Lederman, Clinical Lead and exercise physiologist at Keeping the Body In Mind, an integrated physical health and lifestyle program that aims to improve the physical health of people living with severe mental illness^.

As well as helping to boost your mood, exercise can also help you sleep, cope with stress, and make and store memories, all of which can contribute to a feeling of overall wellbeing.

Why does exercise make us feel happier?

Exercise triggers the brain’s production of the chemicals dopamine and serotonin, which are associated with feelings of happiness and wellbeing. But that’s just one of the ways that exercise impacts our brain and body, says Dr Lederman.

"The exact brain mechanisms are complex and still not fully understood, but there are various factors at play. These include neurochemical mechanisms, i.e., the chemical processes in the brain, anti-inflammatory effects of exercise and its associations with better mental health outcomes, psychosocial theories, such as social connection, and lifestyle changes, including improved sleep quality and reduced substance use," Dr Lederman adds.

The American Psychological Association says exercise that raises a person’s heart rate and leaves them breathless can help them cope with symptoms of anxiety or panic because it teaches their body how to manage these symptoms and then mimics the response during moments of high stress.

What type of exercise can improve mental health?

You don’t have to run a marathon or hit the gym every day to see an improvement in your mental health and mood, says Dr Lederman, adding that the key is to start small, make it realistic and find something that you enjoy and that’s easy to maintain.

“A variety in activity is important. Just like in our diet, we don’t generally all eat the same thing all the time, so why should we move in the same way all the time?” he adds. “Walking instead of using the car or taking the stairs at work instead of the lift are both great forms of incidental exercise that are easy to achieve and stick to. Remember, something is better than nothing, and something more is better than something.”

Certain activities do come with proven advantages for specific mental health challenges and symptoms.

Queensland Health reports that exercising outside, known as ‘green exercise’, has been shown to increase feelings of self-esteem and mood, particularly in those with symptoms of depression and anxiety. And the effects are amplified if you’re also near water.

A Spanish study published in 2021 in the journal Frontiers In Psychology found that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and moderate-intensity interval training (MIIT) both significantly decreased feelings of stress and anxiety, and increased feelings of resilience, among healthy adults who were confined indoors due to COVID-19 restrictions. HIIT was shown to be more successful at decreasing symptoms of depression.

The power of team sports on the body and mind

Research published in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine revealed that exercising as part of a team, rather than alone, can also improve feelings of mental wellbeing.

“I would encourage those who are interested in sport and moving cities to join a local sports team,” says Dr Lederman. “Team sports offer social connectedness, can provide people with a positive reinforcement, support and the sense of doing something meaningful.

“Simply being engaged with the community has a huge range of health benefits and also increases someone's self-efficacy,” he adds. “In a team, you have a role or position and can get a sense of achievement from contributing. This translates back to other aspects of life, such as relationships or work, and can help people see their own active role and value in their lives.”

For Michelle, not only did those morning swims offer mental health benefits, she also made new friends, increased her physical fitness and even scored some points with her young daughters. “They think it’s very cool that I swim in the ocean,” she says, smiling. “And I think they can see that it makes me happier and makes me a better mum. While I can’t say it has fixed everything – I don’t think anything can – swimming has certainly helped me cope much better. It’s been life-changing, really.”

How to use exercise to improve your mood

  1. Join a local sports team or club. From netball and soccer to roller-skating and trail running, there’s a local team out there. Just Play is a national service that connects you to local teams in 10 mainstream sports. For more niche or specialty teams, contact your local council, research community Facebook pages or check out what’s happening at your local parks, gyms and sporting facilities.
  2. Go green. With growing evidence that getting outside can help boost your happiness levels, there’s no better time to exercise outdoors. Programs like Healthy Parks, Healthy People in South Australia provide great ideas and easy ways to start incorporating the great outdoors into your exercise routine. Ask your local council about options.
  3. Do little but do it often. Exercise that improves feelings of wellbeing doesn’t need to take up all of your time, with some studies showing that as little as 10 minutes of high-intensity exercise per day provides great benefits. Skipping, sprint training or a short HIIT sessions are all great ways to increase your heart rate and get you moving.
  4. Put on some tunes. Studies show that music has myriad mental health benefits, so combine upbeat tracks with some high-energy dancing. You’ll be surprised how breathless – and happy – you feel afterwards.
  5. Slow down and breathe. Exercise doesn’t have to mean huffing, puffing and sweating. Research out of Harvard University shows that more mindful forms of activity like yoga and meditation can help increase feelings of calm and control, and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Mental health support for eligible members

To make it as easy as possible for members to access the mental wellbeing support they need, HCF has partnered with PSYCH2U, offering eligible HCF members access to free online video sessions with a mental health professional+. If you need to speak to someone now about your mental health, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

By Kerry McCarthy
Published June 2022

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IMPORTANT INFORMATION

* Name has been changed.

^ Many thanks to Dr Oscar Lederman PhD, clinical lead and accredited exercise physiologist for Keeping The Body In Mind (KBIM) at the Eastern Suburbs Mental Health Service, and conjoint associate lecturer at the Department of Exercise Physiology, School of Health Sciences, UNSW Sydney. Email: o.lederman@unsw.edu.au; Twitter: @oscarlederman. Keeping The Body In Mind is a publicly funded community mental health service. To donate to the charity, click here and add KBIM in the department box.

+ Must have HCF gold level hospital cover for at least 2 months. Eligibility based on clinical need as assessed by PSYCH2U.

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