Exercise and the relationship with mental health and psychological well-being

The case of including exercise in our life has shown to be a strong medicine against serious health problem such us unbalanced cholesterol levels, coronary heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Since any medical conditions are simultaneously binds with wellbeing and the mental power of people to overcome these problems, the necessarily for research has increased dramatically the last 15 with 20 years. In the now days is able to find hundreds of studies, narratives and questionnaires on the topic. Bring all this recent research together is leading to one path which show as why this is an area worthy of investigation. Physical activity is scientifically proven to play a highly role in the treatment of clinical or subclinical depression and anxiety, overcome many other psychological problems and improve the people’s life quality through improvement of their sleep, improved mood states, treat anxiety and stress increase the self-confidence.

Considering the studies and researches on the last 20 years and the findings are coming on the surface from the resent ones we are in the position to admit that the medical community accept that physical activity is able to help people to achieve a healthier living. Syntheses of studies (Berlin & Colditz, 1990 Powell, Thompson, Gaspersen & Kendrick, 1987) have shown that not very active life such as having a sitting job and not participating in any kind of physical activity combined with habits like smoking and drinking can put you in a higher risk of developing coronary heart disease, stroke and premature death. The increasing urbanization and mechanization of the world has reduced our levels of physical activity. The World Health Organization believes that more than 60% of the global population is not sufficiently active. The World Heart Federation is points that any kind of physical activity can increase your life span and protect you from various cardiovascular diseases including the reduction of the risk developing type2 diabetes which is a dangerous factor to develop hearts treats.

The mention that physical activity is a beneficial tool in the hand of people to treat many of the most serious and common diseases, that plaguing humanity is pointed in every single study and research around the subject. Another element highlighted through these studies is that the various health problems and other life situations such as taking care an older member of the family, suffering the loss of a person very close to us, a very busy full with responsibilities lifestyle or dealing with money and family problems can lead to emotional and mental health issues. Bring in all these negative aspects of life can lead to a very unbalanced and depressed future. The preferable positive side would be a wellbeing life which is recently defined from the UK government as a positive physical, social and mental state.

Physical activity relating with anxiety, stress and clinically defined depression

Wellbeing is the situations that every person should chase after for a mentally balanced lifestyle. Many situations in life can change the way we feel in positive or negative and for example a factor is our mood. As Thayer wrote: ‘’Even an unpleasant social situation can be tolerable if our mood is positive. On the other hand, if we are in a bad mood, an activity that usually is very pleasant, one that otherwise gives us great enjoyment, can be boring uninteresting. When our mood low, even the most positive events become meaningless” (Thayer RE 1996). Therefore, through the year’s people try to find new ways to unlock the positive feelings and regulate their mood. One of the most scientifically proven ways is nothing more than the physical activity. The potentials are coming out from encaging exercise in our lives can be more than beneficial for the population. A small research has shown that even a 10-minute walk per day can increase the mental alertness, energy and positive thinking.

A very common factor relating with cardiovascular diseases and unbalanced mental health is stress, anxiety and depression. Starting with some recent research done by the Mental Health Foundation the results are more than worried. The findings shown that 59% of the British people are experiencing more stressful lives than 5 years ago, 47% declare of feeling stressful every day and 24% every couple of days (How to manage and reduce stress 2013). Continuing 18% found alcohol as a way to treat stress and 10% smoking something that shows us physical activity is still lacking of recognition by the people. A very common disorder with stress is anxiety which sometimes can be normal but if the anxiety generalized in a person’s life can affect dramatically the way of thinking and judging things around. Based on NHS research 1 of 20 adults in UK is affected by generalized anxiety which can related with serious psychological problems such as panic disorder, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (NHS Choices Generalized anxiety disorder 2012).

Another serious factor affecting the mental health with anxiety and stress is depression with ADAA (Anxiety and Depression Association of America) confirming that these are the most common psychiatric illness in the US with over 40 million adults been affected. Based on an ABC article depression can occur from various situations such as genes, biology, psychology, personality and life events. Also, can be a very complicate disorder as it can appear by the loss of a person next to us or by no reason at all. In Australia 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will experience an episode of clinical depression during their lifetime, and an estimated 6 per cent of Australian adults are affected by a depressive illness (ABC Health & Wellbeing 2013). Many pharmaceutical companies had come out with various treatments such as antidepressant medication something that creates a fortune for them. The Mental Health Foundation of UK has awareness that this kind of treatment is not the only solution and physical activity can be the key to fight these disorders with fewer side effects and in addition requires less money, is available to everyone, can be easily attached to the private schedule and does not let the stigma that a person is under any kind of mental problem.

How does exercise impact on wellbeing?

Analysing and studding the data from the various researches relating with the exercise and the relationship with wellbeing can give as a general image but is not able to understand the scientifically side of the subject. The mechanisms underpinning the relationships between physical activity, wellbeing and mental health are complex and multifaceted. Physical activity influences numerous interconnected systems (Mental Health Foundation UK). One biological explanation given by the MHF is that through the exercise the brain is able to release a hormone with the name endorphin which has many similarities with heroin and morphine. The particular mechanism was first proposed about 30 years ago, on a research connecting the hormone endorphin with mental health problems relating with mood and personality (Dishman RK & O’Connor PJ, 2009). Even if the research wasn’t at the level that should be the scientist were able to measure that levels of endorphins during and after the exercise were higher and connection with changes in moods is possible.

More and more scientists in the psychologist community are convinced that physical activity has to be a tool in their hand for treating serious mental health disorders. Jennifer Carder a sport psychologist at the Ohio’s Center of Balanced said “
“I think clinical and counselling psychologists could do a better job of incorporating exercise into treatment”. Patients with anxiety and stress are more likely to develop panic disorders which is relating with reactions such as sweating, dizziness and increasing heart rate. Jasper Smits, PhD, Co-Director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and co-author Otto tested on 2008 the theory that if the feelings with panic attacks (Fight-or-flight), anxiety and stress are similar to participating in a low to medium intensity exercise the transfer of these feelings from on situation to another could be possible. The participation of 60 volunteers in a 2-week exercise program was able to confirm this theory and also showed that people are more able to deal these symptoms with safety than danger.


The way of explaining how the movements of the muscles during the exercise can connected with changes in the peoples’ mental health can be very complicated and most of the times biological and psychological explanations are both needed. Some of the researches which are available indicate that exercise is able to increase serotonin (the neurotransmitter targeted by antidepressants) or brain-derived neurotrophic factor (which supports the growth of neurons). Also, researches have proved through physical activity is able to improve brain plasticity and the brain’s capacity with result developing new neural pathways and new neurons to grow during adulthood. This effect seems to be particularly strong in the hippocampus (an area of the brain involved in memory) and frontal cortex (involved in movement, decision-making, problem solving, and planning). Increased brain plasticity has been suggested as a mechanism by which physical activity enhances brain functioning, especially in later life, and protects against neurodegenerative diseases, such as dementia (Erickson KI, Gildengers AG & Butters MA 2013).

Exercise: Find the way and adopt it

Continuing the medical and psychological community is coming in agreement that physical activity with medical treatment combination can be more beneficially and with less side effects for the patient but is still wondering what keeps back the society to be more active. Many times, we introduce the body and the mind as two different parts. In actual fact the body cannot function properly if the mind is not mentally and biologically healthy but the same exist with the opposite direction (
Faulkner G & Taylor AH, 2012). If for example anxiety, stress and depression are taking over a person’s life can make you do less things which at the end make you less active. A recent survey made by the NHS Choices UK shows that only the 40% of men and 28% of women was able to meet the recommended physical activity guidelines.

One of the biggest berries for the people to start or be more active is the feeling of fear that in some point they are going to fail achieving their goals. The Royal Collage of Psychiatrists has mentioned that even a person is not able to meet the recommended physical activity guidelines should start from the minimum level possible to start encaging exercise into their lives. The next stage when a person start being active should be search and find what can keep him/her motivated and force him to continue. A motivational research done by Mental Health Foundation has shown that people which tend to have control and choice about what kind of exercise they want to do and how are able to keep in track of their goals and enjoy the activity that they are into. Also, keep tracking your goals and stay motivated to achieve them is more than important because most of the people are getting into exercise not only to improve their mental health but also with the goal of improving their bodies, a factor which is related with depression and other mental health problems if the person is not able to meet these goals.

Probably one of the first things is coming to person’s mind when is about to start any kind of physical activity is about the company. Joining any kind of physical activity with someone you trust and has some psychological influence on you is able to help overcome fears connected with failure, encourage and keep you motivated and also push you to start being more active than you used to be. Secondly another factor that can keep you away from start being active is the time which most of the times is used as an excuse. As people are following different kind of lifestyles is not able for everyone to be the same active. A way to deal with time is first of all to put your life in program and search which time in the day or the week suit best for exercise without the same time affecting other aspects in life such as work, family, friends and responsibilities. The worst-case scenario of not having any leisure-time at all a home exercise such as such as housework and gardening, also count as moderate intensity physical activity and can be beneficial as well.

In the same category as time is the money which also can be a very good excuse to keep you out from passing from the life full of stress, anxiety, depression and panic attacks to a more mentally and physically balanced lifestyle. Is true that in some areas the membership for a sporting centre can be really high and the participation in any sport can have costs that a person can use to cover various responsibilities. The truth is that a walk in the park, playing sports with friends or doing home activities is going to take zero money out of your pocket. Also, habits such as smoking and alcohol can be nothing more than harmful for your health and habits that costing you money which could invested to improve any medical and psychological problems by buying a membership to a sporting centre or doing any other physical activity that you like. Some other tools that can help a person staying active is to keep record of the results and sometimes rewarding yourself about your achievements.

Σάββας Σάββα, ΒSc (Hons), MSc (Hons)

Stength & Conditioning Coach / Προπονητής φυσικής κατάστασης

Αθλητής Ολυμπιακής Άρσης Βαρών

Athletes Innovation Team

Τηλέφωνα: 96284851