Updated: Aug 21
The Benefits of Physical Activity on Mental Health
Physical activity has not only been found to play a significant role in increasing overall physical health. There is a growing body of literature that recognizes the positive effects of physical activity on the management of mild-to-moderate mental health difficulties such as depression and anxiety.
The general outcome from previous research studies indicates that physical activity brings about many physiological and psychological changes resulting in an improvement in mood states and self-esteem as well as lower anxiety and stress levels.
What is physical activity?
Physical activity can be defined as any movement that requires energy expenditure and your skeletal muscles to work. It doesn’t matter how intense your workout is. Previous researchers have found that your mood can benefit from physical activity no matter the intensity of the activity.
Physiological changes during physical activity
A range of factors can contribute to depression and anxiety. Your brain chemistry is an important one. In many cases, you can improve your brain chemistry with something as simple as physical activity.
When you do any form of physical activity, your body releases chemicals called endorphins. Endorphins are manufactured in your brain, spinal cord and other parts of your body and are released in response to brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters interact with the receptors in your brain which are known to reduce your perception of pain and produce positive feelings in the body. Endorphins are responsible for the “runners high” and for the feelings of relaxation and optimism that accompany physical activity.
Serotonin and adrenaline
Endorphins are only one of many neurotransmitters released during forms of physical activity. Physical activity increases brain sensitivity for the hormone serotonin which relieves feelings of depression. Raising your levels of serotonin boosts your mood and overall sense of well-being. It can also help improve your appetite and sleep cycles, which are often negatively affected by depression. In addition, physical activity reduces levels of the body’s stress hormone, adrenaline, which plays a crucial role in your body’s fight-or-flight response.
Previous researchers have found that increases in body temperature are responsible for mood elevation after physical activity, which can lead to a reduction in symptoms of anxiety. An increase in temperature in certain brain regions, such as the brain stem, may be the main contributing factor to a decrease in muscular tension and feelings of overall relaxation.
Psychological changes during physical activity
When discussing the effects of physical activity on mental health it is crucial to consider the psychological aspects at play. Physical activity has been shown to provide a distraction from negative thoughts and ruminations, and an improvement in self-esteem through self-efficacy and mastery. Behavioral factors also contribute to the psychological benefits of physical activity. For example, as your strength and stamina increase, your self-image may improve. You may also learn a sense of mastery and control of pride and self-confidence. In addition, physical activity also provides an opportunity to form new friendships and build new networks.