Saturday 25 February 2017

'Exercise can act as a stress-buster'

We all know the physical benefits of working out: muscle strength, weight loss, bone density. But exercise can play a vital role in your mental well-being too, writes Dr Olivia Hurley

Physical activity and mental well-being are connected
Physical activity and mental well-being are connected

The old Latin sayings 'solvitur ambulando' ('it is solved by walking') and mens sana in corpore sano ('a sound mind in a sound body') refer to the connection between physical activity and mental well-being - that link between the body and the mind.

One of the most commonly recommended behaviours considered to positively impact on mental health and well-being is that of physical activity. But what is physical activity? Physical activity is any kind of bodily movement that is produced by the skeletal muscles and involves the expenditure of energy. This means that walking, gardening, cycling and climbing the stairs are all valid forms of physical activity, in the same way that formal exercise is (such as a 5k run or a spin-cycle class). All such activities contribute to your daily 'dose' of physical activity.

While the benefits of such physical activity on the body are well known (i.e., it is beneficial for cardiovascular fitness, improved muscle strength and bone density, some disease protection and weight management), also important are the mental health benefits of physical activity. So what are the research-supported, mental health benefits of physical activity?

1 Physical activity is often referred to as a 'stress-buster'. When the body is 'stressed' it secretes chemicals such as cortisol. When we engage in physical activity noradrenaline and endorphins (our 'natural pain killers') are secreted instead. These hormones or chemicals in the body are thought to account for the feelings of elevated mood often reported by individuals after they have engaged in physical activity, along with reported reductions in feelings of stress.

Physical activity is also described by many people as their 'escape' from the stresses of their daily lives. Physical activity for them may simply offer a time-out, time to reflect, relax and rest the mind for a short period of time.

2 Engaging in physical activity has been indicated as facilitating some types of cognitive functioning. This means that individuals often report feeling more mentally alert after completing some physical activity. Blood and oxygen flow to the brain increases when we are physically active. This is thought to explain these reports of an increased ability to focus or concentrate on mentally demanding tasks after engaging in physical activity. Physical activity has even been considered helpful in nerve cell generation and may support synaptic plasticity.

3 Physical activity is thought to promote better sleep quality. People who engage in physical activity often report that their sleep quality is better and they feel more rested after such sleep. Research studies have linked these reported feelings to less time spent in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep (also known as the dream stage of sleep).

REM sleep is often considered the least 'restful' sleep phase in the sleep cycle, given that the brain's activity during this phase is most like its 'awake' state. This may be the reason why individuals report feeling more 'rested' when their sleeping brain activity shows they have spent less of their sleep time in the REM stage of sleep, following a physically active day.

4 Physical activity has also, in various research studies from peer-reviewed scientific journals, been associated with the alleviation of some symptoms experienced by individuals with depressive and anxiety-related conditions.

Changes in brain chemistry, such as in the dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain, are thought to occur when we carry out various forms of physical activity. This may account for the improved mood states often reported by individuals with such mental health difficulties, after they have completed some physical activity.

5 Recently renewed research interest on physical activity taking place in the natural environment has led to the recommendation that more physical activity should take place out of doors, in nature, in order to maximise its benefits. Research studies have reported greater 'restorative' effects for mental well-being when the physical activity is completed outside, in a park, on a beach or in a forest, for example.

Some individuals who take their physical activity out into nature have reported a greater sense of calm and relaxation following engaging in the activity in such settings, rather than inside in a gym environment, for example.

So the take-home message is: physical activity has been shown to have many mental benefits; remind yourself of that the next time you pass the lift and choose the stairs.

* Dr Olivia Hurley is a lecturer in Sport Psychology in IADT, a registered psychologist with the Psychological Society of Ireland, and an accredited sport psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport

* For information on the research sources for the above piece, please contact

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