1 in 4 of us will suffer with poor mental health at some point in our lives. Anxiety can affect around 16% of the British population at any one time with depression affecting around 1 in 10 adults.

Anxiety and depression are generally controlled through medication and, for the fortunate who have reached the top of the waiting list, counselling and therapies, such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). However, an often neglected intervention when dealing with mental health is exercise.

Mental health and physical health are treated separately, however evidence has shown that there is a link between physical activity and positive mental health. The US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) concluded in 1987 that exercise was positively linked with mental health, reduced stress and anxiety and had emotional benefits for both men and women of all ages. Not only can it benefit those suffering with poor mental health, it can protect people from initially developing depression and/or anxiety though chemical changes in the brain that positively alter mood.

The NHS recommends that adults do around 150 minutes of moderate activity each week, an average of 30 minutes five times a week. Moderate exercise means being energetic enough so you breathe heavier but are not out of breath and you feel warmer, but not overly hot and sweaty. Research has demonstrated that medium-intensity activity undertaken for 20 minutes, three times a week has significantly reduced the symptoms of clinical depression (Craft and Landers, 1998).

The prospect of physical exercise may be daunting, particularly if you have minimal experience of exercising. If so, build up slowly, begin by walking for a short distance and gradually develop until you can walk for an hour or even begin running. Remember that even a 15 minute walk can help you relax and clear your mind, as any exercise is better than none.

Physical activity does not have to be ‘sport’ as such. Simply adapting to a more active lifestyle can improve your mood, whilst often saving money. For example, rather than using public transport to work either walk or cycle if possible, or wash your car rather than using a car wash, take the stairs instead of the lift. Any type of exercise is appropriate, as long as it suits you.

Exercise is a brilliant way to meet people and expand your social circle, which can be crucial when dealing with a mental health crisis. Sign up to a local exercise class and meet people from your community, or join a local sports team, such as netball or football club, where you can develop friendships and improve motivation by becoming more competitive. Research has suggested that weightlifting and running can improve your confidence levels and help tackle low self-esteem; whilst team sports can help you overcome loneliness, improve social skills and help to build trust (Da Silva, 2002).

Any form of exercise, from the moderate to the elite end of the scale will help when dealing with anxiety and depression. Exercise can help:

  • Relieve tension, stress and mental fatigue
  • Improve sleep
  • Provide a natural energy boost
  • Give a sense of achievement
  • Lessen anger and frustration
  • Develop a healthy appetite
  • Give you a focus and motivation in life
  • Develop a better social life
  • You enjoy life

Ultimately, exercise can help develop self esteem and self control – two vital components of personality required when overcoming anxiety and depression.

ReferencesShow all

D Da Silva (2002) This sporting life. The Observer accessed at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2002/sep/29/shopping2

Craft LL & Landers DM (1998) The effect of exercise on clinical depression and depression resulting from mental illness: a meta-analysis. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology. 20 339–357.

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