It’s not groundbreaking news that physical movement is important to mental health and wellbeing. Plato and Socrates both knew it and the phrase “mens sana in corpore sano”, which literally means “a healthy mind in a healthy body”, was written sometime in the first century AD. Modern-day researchers have been looking at this link for decades (the earliest scientific article I found was written in 1912). But it’s still something worth reflecting on.
So, what types of mental health and wellbeing can physical movement help with, and how?
At a most basic level, going for a run or class, can give you a sense of achievement. This in itself is often enough to elevate your mood.
Then there are the endorphins that start to circulate around after physical movement. Endorphins literally make you feel good, and they are the basis of the ‘runners high’ experienced by many longer-distance runners. But don’t worry, this doesn’t mean that you need to go for a 10km run on your lunch break. Just a quick stroll will do, and grab a friend to go with you.
The effects of physical activity on mood depends on the type of physical activity, and how hard you go at it. This can be a case of trial and error, and will be different for many people. Personally, I find vigorous lunchtime football games make me feel great immediately afterwards, but I can then slump in the afternoon. Now, I find lunchtime yoga gives me a boost throughout the afternoon (I don’t think I would’ve believed that 10 years ago!).
Physical activity can also help with long-term (or clinical) depression. It’s so potent that exercise is now being prescribed as a therapy for clinical depression, usually alongside therapies such as antidepressants. At the very least, movement can help stave off the symptoms of depression, particularly when it’s done out in nature. We all feel down once in a while, and this is normal. This is where the mood-enhancing benefits of physical activity come into play.
An important disclaimer: Physical activity is not a cure-all for depression. You should always contact your local GP or clinical psychologist for advice regarding your own situation.
Stress and coping
The World Health Organisation recognises that a high level of stress is a major health risk, potentially leading to various physical and psychological conditions. Regular physical activity has been shown to act as a sort of buffer to stress, most likely by influencing cortisol levels in response to stressful situations. At the very least, taking some time out from work and to focus on your body is a great way of pressing the reset button during the day.
The secondary effects of movement and exercise can also help people cope with physical illness. A great example of this is the ExPinkT clinic based here in Dunedin. This is an exercise programme that brings together people who have battled breast cancer, resulting in an amazing informal social support group (more information on this here).
This is an interesting one, and worth more than the space it receives here. Regular physical activity is linked with increased self-esteem. But, if you’re motivated to exercise just to boost your body-related self-esteem, this may not be very sustainable. This is because exercising just to look a certain way results in constantly comparing yourself to others, which often includes air-brushed Instagram models. Striving for these unrealistic ideals can deplete self-esteem, leaving you feel low.
Instead, focus on the amazing things your body can do as a result of moving regularly. The “yeah, I can climb that wall” type of self-esteem.
Physical movement helps you to focus, think clearly, and learn. So, if you’ve got a big project on and you’re short on time, try to remember that even a brisk five-minute stroll (preferably in nature) is enough to get your brain juices flowing. Bite-sized movement breaks will keep you more focused on what’s going on at work, as opposed to constantly drifting off at your desk. So, step away from that computer screen that you’ve been staring at for hours on end (and yes, I have been guilty of this!) and get those limbs moving. Setting a timer that reminds you to move for five minutes every 30 minutes is a great technique (more information on this here).
Even the type of physical activity can alter its effects on cognitive functioning. For example, moderate intensity exercise is related to better working memory, whereas high-intensity exercise improves information processing speeds.
Active bodies need rest. Studies have shown that that regular physical movement helps to improve both the quality and duration of sleep. Sleep is vital to good mental (and physical) health. The next time you have a restless night, make a mental note about how you feeling the next day. On the other hand, a good night’s sleep can lead to improved mood, productivity, and wellbeing the next day. So, regular physical activity brings with it these secondary effects.
A word of warning: Avoid vigorous exercise within two hours of going to sleep. Going to bed wired is no ideal state to be in!
Each of these topics could fill a textbook by itself. There are many other benefits that I haven't covered here for the sake of keeping it a (relatively) light read. ADHD, age-related cognitive decline, and even schizophrenia have been shown to respond well to exercise. As researchers develop a greater understanding the effects of physical activity on mental functioning, our holistic picture will become clearer. This represents a new frontier in physical activity and psychological research.
Let’s take it back to basics. As a species, we’re built to move. Therefore, it makes sense that when we do move we function better, both physically and mentally. The benefits are even greater if we can find the space to move within nature (even if that is just your back yard).
So, the next time you find yourself debating whether you should put on your shoes and go for a walk or a run, or even just to stand up and stretch, know that every little action can boost your mental wellbeing in some way.
After sitting down to write this for a few hours (with mini-movement breaks thrown in, of course), I’m off for a walk in nature. If you want any more information, references for any of the information in this article, or a helping hand in getting yourself motivated to move, just get in touch. In the meantime, check out this infographic from the Mental Health Foundation New Zealand to see how you can fit movement into your everyday life.