It's not just popular opinion: there is scientific evidence to back the psychological benefits associated with physical exercise. Image courtesy of Mister GC at freedigitalphotos.net
Most of us have heard anecdotally, or through Current Affairs programs or news reports the positive effects exercise can have on our psychological health, as well as the more obvious benefits to our physical health.
However, the positive impact of exercise on our mental or psychological health is more than just hearsay. Scientific, controlled trials are ones which rely on impartial evidence to back them up and give them validity. It is these kinds of studies which have been performed regarding the positive influence of physical exercise upon mental health. The results from these kinds of studies are firstly reliable – that is the findings have been reproduced time and again.
Secondly, this type of study is valid – a term meaning the findings are accurate because they are scientific. There are statistical tests which back up these assertions – I mention this to give readers confidence in the background evidence. Information has been gathered, summarised and put in my own words from “The Exercise Effect” by Kirsten Weir, from the American Psychological Association, Dec 2011, Vol 42 (11)” (all References annotated with a numerical 1 - so that readers can read more details if they wish to.
I also add my own thoughts at the end but all information that is from this article will be numerically referenced. My own thoughts are not referenced, but ones that I thought to be self-evident upon reflection, and I am also interested in what other readers have found.
From our personal experiences, we are familiar with the positive feeling we enjoy after exercise. However, it can give us confidence to know that science has also validated that engaging in physical activity can alleviate depression, both long and short-term.1
Randomised, controlled trials have concluded that exercise is comparable to antidepressant medication with respect to its mood-enhancing action.1 This has been thought to be due to the boost in levels of serotonin, a chemical associated with mental feelings of well-being. 1
For people who do suffer from depression, it can be helpful to think of this analogy – if you don’t have a headache, you won’t notice the effects of aspirin, and the worse the pain if you do have a headache, the greater will the perceived impact be. If depression could be thought of as like the ‘headache’, the more down you feel, the more powerful the influence of exercise perceived. If one doesn’t exercise, it would be the equivalent of not taking an aspirin for a headache.1 Also, you don’t know how aspirin will work until you take it – in the same way exercise won’t seem as obvious the solution until engaged in. 1
However, it is of relevance to note that if exercise is initiated at levels too intense for the individual, that this mood-boosting effect may not be noticed for an extra 30 minutes.1 This is important because this enhancement in mental well-being is the most influential factor as to whether an exercise regimen once initiated, is maintained.1 This suggests we should start off an exercise program at a level that is sufficiently vigorous to raise our breathing and heart rate, but not so intense as to leave us breathless and exhausted.
There is also evidence that exercise can help “panic disorder”, a condition in which a person becomes anxious due to an initial fear response. Thus feelings of anxiety escalate giving rise to panic.1 This is because people when exercising experiencing an increase in heart rate and perspiration and can highlight that this physiological response can occur in a context distinct from a mental state of fear. This reinforces to sufferers of panic disorder that there are reasons other than anxiety for this physiological reaction, and that there is less reason to “fear their fear”. 1
Exercise also improves the harmful long-term effects of stress, due to a biologically-based strengthening of the brain. 1
Another psychological health benefit of exercise is that, with combined with a therapy known as Cognitive Behavioural Treatment (or CBT), it can improve chances of successfully quitting smoking.1
People may also enjoy a feeling that their lives are more meaningful in response to a continued participation in physical exercise, due to a sense of achievement.1
Exercise improves blood flow, thus concentration is improved, which has the secondary effect of lowering stress levels as work is engaged in more productively. Exercise can also be an opportunity to practice mindfulness or exclusive focus on particular, chosen sights, sounds and smells. Mindfulness practice improves mental well-being by helping reduce stress and gain perspective.
Exercise can lead to weight loss and therefore a more positive body image and improved self-esteem.
It is feasible to conclude that a lowering of physical health issues such as blood pressure control and the risk of diabetes, to name just one physiological benefit, would be associated with lower mental stress, also.
There are the psychological benefits associated with socialising if you engage in exercise in a group, especially with friends.
Finally, especially exercise that is engaged in with others, or group exercise designed to be fun, such as ‘Zumba’ can be fun – this one isn’t technical, but we do know we like to enjoy ourselves!