We are often told to do 30 minutes of exercise a day. We regularly hear that physical activity is good for our mental wellbeing. But, do many of us actually know why? A lot of the time, the focus is on physical wellbeing – the fact exercise helps you lose weight and can reduce the risk of illnesses such as heart and lung disease, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes and dementia. However, physical activity has just as big an impact on your brain as it does your body.
This blog will delve into how exercise impacts your mental health and how it can help prevent illnesses such as depression and anxiety and have positive effects on those suffering – with insights from the University of South Australia’s Manager: Student Wellbeing, Nadia Rajic. With World Health Organisation data showing one million Australian’s currently have depression and one in five experience a mental illness in any year, Ms Rajic is passionate about how important exercise is for mental wellbeing, the benefits exercise will have on individuals and their studies and how easy it is to do some physical activity every day.
Ms Rajic said exercise is a good distraction from negative thinking which is often associated with anxiety, depression and other mental health problems. Physical exercise is a great way for students to blow off steam when they are under pressure and it's known as a positive coping strategy for stress. Black Dog Institute research shows that even one hour of moderate exercise per week can have a preventative effect on depression. So, give yourself some time away from your thoughts about uni work which may be overwhelming you, or any other life worries, go to the gym, participate in team sports training or join a UniSA walking group.
While doing physical activity, your body releases endorphins – Your body’s natural ‘happy’ chemical. They then interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain, as well as triggering a positive feeling in the body. Ms Rajic said endorphins are linked to having a positive impact on existing depression and anxiety if it is already there and that they can also have a preventative effect. Endorphins can also prevent the onset of common mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.
Physical activity improves cognitive functioning, which is really important for students and people in the workforce. Exercise causes extra blood – and therefore more oxygen and nutrients – to be pumped to the brain, which likely will make you think more clearly. It not only increases the size of the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for memory – but also increases the connections between the nerve cells in the brain, which improves your memory and helps protect against injury and disease. Along with that, it improves our ability to focus and concentrate, to learn and retain information. Ms Rajic said it doesn’t need to be strenuous exercise either, and can be broken up throughout the day. Even a 10-minute short walk around campus, getting off the bus a stop early and walking or taking the stairs instead of a lift can boost concentration and make you more productive.
Ms Rajic believes that one of the key dimensions of mental wellbeing is social connectedness. The fact that exercise can be done in a group can improve a person’s sense of belonging. She also said doing something with other people has shown to be more motivating. Not only is it a great way to make more friends and meet likeminded people, those who regularly exercise in a group-based setting like a sports team, sports club or even people who walk with someone else, are more likely to follow through so they don’t let anyone down.
Having a good night’s sleep is extremely important for mental health. Ms Rajic said people who are diagnosed with depression are known to not sleep enough or sleep too much, so sleep is a key indicator linked to depression and anxiety. Your brain is bombarded with new information every day and sleeping gives the brain a chance to have some ‘downtime’ and process and store that information. It also improves concentration, creativity and assists with building resilience. With research suggesting that 60-90 per cent of people with depression having insomnia, it is essential to give yourself the best chance of having a good sleep and wake up well-rested. That’s where physical activity comes in if you exert more energy and tire both your body and mind after a solid block of exercise each day, it will be easier to fall asleep at night and have a more restful sleep.
Regular physical activity gives you a sense of accomplishment, which is important for self-esteem according to Ms Rajic. If people set some even small, achievable plans and goals around fitness and exercise, it increases our self-esteem and self-confidence. Regular activity is an investment in your mind and body and when it becomes a habit, it can encourage your sense of self-worth and make you feel strong. Exercise will make you start feeling better about your appearance and, by meeting even small exercise goals, you’ll feel a sense of achievement.
If you want more information about the importance of exercise on mental wellbeing, and want to know how UniSA can help, visit their wellbeing website for support.