What are the biggest benefits of physical fitness on mental health?

In close alignment to this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week theme: “Movement: moving more for our mental health”, we take a look at the key ways in which fitness and exercise can support good mental wellbeing.

How can fitness support good mental health

Mental health challenges can affect people of all ages, genders, demographics, and geographical regions. According to the World Health Organization’s 2022 “World Mental Health Report”, 970 million people globally were living with a mental disorder in 2019. Poor mental health spans a range of issues including anxiety and depression (which the WHO’s 2022 report* states went up by more than 25% in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic), ADHD, OCD, PTSD, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.

The discussion around mental health is vast, and there are a huge number of factors that can affect and help manage mental wellbeing. But experts agree that physical exercise and activity can reduce the risk of suffering from poor mental health, and help manage periods of mental ill-health if they occur.

What are the benefits of fitness on mental health?

Healthy lifestyle factors, including diet, stress management, and getting enough good quality sleep can have a significant impact on mental wellbeing. Physical exercise falls into this category. But why exactly does physical activity support good mental health?

  1. Exercise releases ‘feel good’ hormones in the brain, including endorphins and serotonin, which improve mood and outlook, and can lead to other positive lifestyle choices.
  2. Doing physical exercise can act as a distraction from negative thought patterns, while also helping you to get you out of the house or connect you with others.
  3. Exercise typically leads to positive health outcomes (even in the short term) which can have a knock-on effect on mental wellbeing and mood.
  4. Physical exercise increases blood and oxygen flow to the brain which improves cognitive function by promoting the growth of new neural connections. This improves memory, focus, motivation, and self-esteem and can protect the brain against degenerative disease.
  5. In the long term, people who choose to do some physical exercise also make healthier choices around diet, alcohol, sleep, stress, and social activities, all of which can support good mental wellness.

Top ways physical exercise helps with mental wellbeing

  • Exercise helps relieve stress and anxiety, as being active triggers the release of endorphins and reduces levels of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone.
  • Exercise improves sleep quality. This is because it helps regulate sleep patterns and the circadian rhythm, leading to better sleep which has a knock-on effect on mood and mental wellbeing.
  • Exercise supports cognitive health, by boosting brain health with blood flow and oxygen, improving memory, concentration, and cognitive performance.
  • Successful exercise helps to elevate our self-esteem and confidence. Having a fitness routine (whatever that looks like) and achieving goals can make you feel more capable in other areas of life.
  • Fitness activities can involve social interaction. Lots of physical activities bring you in contact with like-minded people, whether that’s team sport, being part of a local yoga studio, or doing outdoor pursuits.
  • Exercise can teach us mindfulness techniques. Activities like yoga incorporate mindfulness and breathing techniques, which can help reduce stress and arm you with tools to deal with mental health challenges.

Top athletes who have used their fitness routines to support mental health

There are many examples of famous athletes using their training to cope with mental health challenges. English cricketer Ben Stokes has recently talked openly about his struggles with anxiety. In 2022 he took a break from cricket to focus on his mental health, using physical fitness to manage his anxiety. Stokes has said that exercise helped him maintain a routine and have a constructive outlet for his stress.

Heavyweight boxing legend Frank Bruno has also spent large portions of his life battling with mental health struggles. He has experienced severe depression and was subsequently diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He has often said how instrumental his boxing training was to his recovery. The routine, discipline, and physical challenge gave him a reliable outlet for combating and controlling his mental health issues.

What are the best types of exercise for good mental health?

You don’t need to be a professional cricketer or a boxing heavyweight to feel the power of exercise on your mental health. You also don’t need to be experiencing any particular mental health diagnosis to benefit from physical fitness. Whether you have a formal diagnosis, or a short-term period of stress, doing some physical activity is almost certain to help.

So what are the best types of exercise to do for your mental health? The good news is, it can be anything you enjoy. The key is finding something you feel able to do consistently.

That might be walking outdoors, gardening, or being active outdoors (there are Green Gyms** around the UK which facilitate free outdoor volunteering sessions to transform local green spaces).

Or it could be going to the gym, doing group exercise classes, or a specific kind of class like yoga, spinning, or circuit training. Maybe you’d prefer to do a team sport that meets up once or twice a week. Or perhaps you’d rather do a solo sport like running, that also allows you the opportunity to join organised events when you feel the urge to do so.

How to get started with physical exercise for mental health

Regular physical exercise is a really important part of a healthy lifestyle, along with a balanced diet, decent sleep, rest, and social connection. There are countless forms of exercise, sport, and physical activity out there. They are all beneficial to your physical health and mental health, both in the short and long term. The most important thing is to get started and keep going.

In honour of Mental Health Awareness Week, commit to incorporating more physical activity into your routine, for your mind as well as your body. Try a few things until you find a form of exercise that you enjoy enough to do a few times a week.

* https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240049338
** https://www.tcv.org.uk/greengym/