Exercising for mental health

24 Jun 2022
We all know that being active is good for our bodies. Exercise makes our bones stronger, reduces risk of developing a chronic condition (like type 2 diabetes and heart disease), boosts our immune function and helps to keep us stronger for longer.

But exercise and physical activity are also vin Onital for our mental health. And with the prevalence of mental health conditions on the rise, there’s never been a better time to move for your mental health!

Mental health in Australia

One in seven Australians will experience depression, and over a quarter will experience an anxiety disorder. In 2020, 3,139 Australians died by suicide, with the vast majority of these being male (2,384 vs 755). 

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen an increase in levels of psychological distress across Australia, and this has translated to higher usage of mental health services. With poor mental health on the rise, there’s never been a better time to shine a light on this issue. 

“Over the last two years everything has changed.  Our lives, in a lot of ways, have become more sedentary; many individuals are now working from home, events have been cancelled and even socialising with friends and loved ones has been restricted at times. Motivation to keep moving and exercise during these times has also seen significant fluctuation. With even as little as five minutes of exercise improving your mental health for the day, it’s more crucial than ever to move” says Accredited Exercise Physiologist, Robyn McArthur.

Move your mood

There’s ample evidence highlighting the positive link between physical activity and mental health. Being active improves your mood, sleep duration and quality, energy levels, and quality of life. One study found that exercising regularly can reduce the number of poor mental health days you experience by over 40%.

So, how does exercise improve your mood?

“When we exercise, our body releases chemicals like endorphins and serotonin. These act to relieve pain, stabilise mood, and create a feeling of well-being. In addition, being active helps our body to regulate our stress hormones, such as cortisol.” explains Robyn. 

For those living with a mental health condition (like anxiety, depression, or PTSD), exercise can help to reduce symptoms and assist with managing (or even treating) these conditions. 

How much exercise do you need to do? 

Australian adults should aim to accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity throughout the week. You should also aim to do muscle strengthening exercises at least twice a week.

Remember to break it up into manageable chunks! Even short bouts of just 10 minutes have shown to be effective for improving mood! And it doesn’t have to be intense, sweat-inducing exercise either. Studies have reported positive effects from light and moderate intensity exercise, too.

Just breaking up long periods of sitting with regular movement can help to reduce the odds of experiencing depression and anxiety.

Remember, something is always better than nothing! Just one hour a week of exercise can help to protect against depression. Every little bit counts.

What type of exercise is best?

There is no “best” type of exercise when it comes to improving mental health. All movement can help! 

Aerobic exercise, like walking, running, gardening, dancing, and cycling, have been proven to reduce anxiety and depression. Strength training exercises (*cough* push-ups *cough*) have also been shown to have a positive impact on mood. 

As Robyn explains, exercise prescription should vary among individuals, and it needs to be tailored specifically to the needs and goals of the client.

“The goals need to be achievable. This is especially true for those with mental health conditions, and consistency is key. If we can maintain a level of consistency, the acute benefits of exercise on our stress responses are a lot more easily maintained.” 

Whatever exercise you do, the most important thing is to find something you enjoy. Moving your body should be fun and make you feel good.

Getting help

If you’re living with a mental health condition and need help to start moving more, an Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP) can help. These allied health professionals are specially trained to understand the challenges that come with conditions like anxiety and depression. They will work with you to set realistic goals and ensure you’re moving safely. Find an AEP near you.

Source: Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA)


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