There are plenty of reasons to move your body, whether it’s the results reflected in the mirror or the well-recognised benefits for physical health and combating chronic disease. What’s increasingly evident, but largely underestimated, is the positive impact exercise has on mental health.
“Rather than being seen as a priority or something that can prevent and treat mental illness, sometimes I think it is just viewed as something that is broadly recommended or synonymous with ‘healthy’,” says Dr Bonnie Furzer, Accredited Exercise Physiologist and Director of Thriving in Motion. “We need to shift that perception so exercise and activity are viewed as a treatment and people are supported to engage in their treatment or take their ‘exercise medicine’.”
Exercise ticks plenty of boxes when it comes to helping mental health. It improves your mood, sleep, self-esteem and cognitive function, and helps to prevent or treat a range of mental health conditions. While outcomes vary depending on the condition and the way you exercise, it can have an important role in preventing and treating depression, which impacts one in eight Australian men over their lifetime, and may be useful for managing anxiety, which affects one in five men.
“When it comes to moderate to mild levels of distress [exercise] is actually comparable, if not better, than the improvements we see from medication,” Dr Furzer says. However, exercise isn’t a replacement for necessary mental healthcare and should be prescribed as part of it, in addition to being used preventatively.
Moving your body doesn’t just affect the muscles you flex — it changes the way your brain is structured and functions. While the exact reasons why exercise affects your mental health aren’t confirmed, some of the ways it’s believed to work are:
- Increasing endorphins (the body’s feel-good hormones)
- Distracting you from negative thoughts and feelings
- Improving physical health (which is linked to mental health)
- Managing your nervous system’s reactivity to stress
- Improving self-efficacy
- Reducing isolation (if you’re working out with a pet or other people).
More than half of Australians do not get the recommended amount of physical activity — a goal that can be even more challenging for those with a mental illness. Inactivity can both contribute to poor mental health and be a consequence of it, with low mood and motivation reducing your ability to get moving.
Reducing barriers that might hold you back from exercise is important. “You don’t necessarily need to pay for one-on-one training sessions or expensive gym memberships – although if you can and enjoy it, these things will help – but any and all exercise is beneficial,” Dr Furzer says.
Here are some tips for getting started, and sticking, with exercise habits that can help your mental health.
1. Set small goals
“If you’re new to exercise then starting with a 10-15 minute walk may be for you,” Accredited Exercise Physiologist Sam Rooney says. “By setting small goals, you set yourself up for achievement, success and momentum.” As little as one hour of exercise a week could help prevent depression — that’s eight minutes per day.
2. Plan in advance
Whether it’s booking into a workout class or writing your routine down for the week, “Planning in advance when and what you are going to do will take the mental burden away from deciding what to do at the time,” Rooney says.
3. Recruit some support
You’re less likely to hit snooze on your alarm when you’re leaving a mate waiting. Use positive peer pressure to commit to regular exercise. “Research tells us that exercising with a friend boosts enjoyment, improves consistency and having someone to socialise with is always a great way to boost your mood,” Rooney says.
4. Make it fun
Exercise works best when it’s something you enjoy because you’ll be more likely to stick with it. “It could be bushwalking, rock climbing, surfing, lawn bowls, bike riding with kids… anything that gets you moving can have benefits for your mental health,” Dr Furzer says. “It doesn’t matter how good running is for you, if you really hate running, it is a chore or something you dread, fair chance it is going to be very hard to regularly do it, and then there is the potential guilt and negative feelings for not doing it.”
If you’d like expert advice, guidance and motivation, working with an Accredited Exercise Physiologist can help. Head to exerciseright.com.au for more information.
 Hu, M.X., Turner, D., Generaal, E. et al. 2020. Exercise interventions for the prevention of depression: a systematic review of meta-analyses. BMC Public Health
 Stonerock, G. L., Hoffman, B. M., Smith, P. J., & Blumenthal, J. A. 2015. Exercise as Treatment for Anxiety: Systematic Review and Analysis. Annals of behavioral medicine : a publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine
 Harvey, S. B., Øverland, S., Hatch, S. L., Wessely, S., Mykletun, A., & Hotopf, M. 2018. Exercise and the Prevention of Depression: Results of the HUNT Cohort Study. The American journal of psychiatry