It’s well accepted that exercise is good for your physical health. It helps control weight, improve blood pressure, build and maintain muscle and bone2 to help keep us mobile.
It can even help reduce the risk of diabetes, cancer, dementia, and other illnesses.3 But research suggests that it also helps improve mental health, including anxiety, depression and stress.1
In fact, regular exercise has been shown to improve memory and thinking skills.4 Exercise pumps blood to the brain, stimulating chemicals that improve your mood and the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning. It also increases the connections between nerve cells in your brain that helps protect it against injury and disease.5
Apart from all those physical changes within your body, exercise seems to help because it can also be a distraction from what is troubling you. And it can help improve self-esteem.6
It might be hard work getting started, but studies show that your mood will improve with exercise.7
In fact, a recent Harvard study show that running for 15 minutes, or walking for 60 minutes a day significantly reduces the risk of major depression.7 Closer to home, Australia’s Black Dog Institute has found that as little as an hour a week of exercise can be highly effective at fighting depression.8 Reviewing data from a large Norwegian study, looking at depression and anxiety over an 11 year period, the authors suggest that 12% of cases of depression could have been prevented if “participants had undertaken even a single hour of exercise a week.”8
Exercise also helps you sleep better. And sleep is ‘nature’s healer.’ Sleep allows your body and mind to recharge leaving you refreshed and alert when you wake, as well as helping the body remain healthy and stave off diseases.9
Headspace, an Australian organisation providing early intervention mental health services to 12-25 year olds, summarises the benefits of exercise like this10:
- Helps you sleep better
- Improves your concentration
- Raises your energy levels
- Improves your confidence
- Boosts your mood
- Releases stress
- Lowers anxiety.
How much exercise helps mental health?
The more the better. But as you’ve seen above, anything you do will help, whether it’s an hour a week, or 15 minutes of running or 60 minutes of walking every day, your brain will thank you.
You don’t have to join a gym or buy expensive equipment. Just try making exercise part of your daily routine. Choose something you enjoy or have enjoyed in the past – that helps motivation.
Grab some headphones and listen to some music, a podcast or an audio book to help alleviate boredom.
Try walking or cycling to the shops instead of using the car. Hop off public transport a stop earlier and walk the rest of the way. Walk the kids to school – it’ll help everyone. Walk the dog. Get active around the house by doing some gardening or other household activities. Every little bit helps. To help keep motivated and track each step you take, you could also try wearing a pedometer or health tracker, like these from Quantum Fit. This can help you beat your previous goal each day.