Physical activity has many positive benefits on our mental health and wellbeing, from reducing anxiety to better sleep quality and even reducing symptoms of depression. Here, we explain the science behind why exercise is good for us, and some simple tips to help you get active this winter.
It is widely accepted that physical exercise is good for our mental health.
Whether that’s to relieve stress or just to help us to feel better about ourselves. But what might be surprising is how wide-reaching these positive effects can be.
Day to day, physical activity can improve sleep quality, while helping us to function more easily and feel better overall. But did you know it can boost our cognitive skills too?
This includes our ability to plan and organise at work and at home, it also helps us control our emotions, improve our memory span and deliver academic performance.
Research into 15 studies, involving more than 33,000 individuals, found that physical activity is associated with 38% reduced risk of cognitive decline – and that can include everything from the ability to concentrate to the onset of dementia.
Here, we break down four ways in which physical activity positively impacts us that are backed by science.
There is strong evidence that moderate to vigorous physical activity improves quality of sleep in a number of ways, including reducing the amount of time it takes to fall asleep and increasing the amount of time spent in deep sleep. It can also help to reduce daytime sleepiness.
Even small amounts of exercise can improve our quality of sleep, however how and when we exercise will affect our sleep patterns in different ways – and some of us benefit more so than others. For example, evidence suggests moderate resistance training and stretching exercise are particularly helpful to people with insomnia.
It might seem obvious, but physical activity can improve how we feel. And there is science to prove it. One study asked participants to rate their mood following a period of activity, such as going for a walk, and after periods of inactivity, such as reading a book.
Participants felt calmer, had more energy and felt more content, compared to those following periods of physical inactivity. Exercise can also be very effective in relieving stress. Highly active individuals tend to have lower stress rates compared to individuals who are less active, research has suggested.
Anxiety affects a large number of people every year. Findings show there were 8.2 million cases of anxiety in the UK in 2013. While anxiety can affect anyone at any age, in England women are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder than men.
The good news is that engaging in regular exercise can help reduce individuals’ acute symptoms and chronic levels of anxiety, according to findings. Most importantly also, if you’re looking for a fast results, the benefits of physical activity on anxiety can take effect immediately.
Alongside more subtle benefits to our overall wellbeing, physical exercise or increased activity has been proven to help alleviate even severe forms of mental illness too.
According to the World Health Organisation, depression is a leading cause of disability, affecting more than 264 million people worldwide at any age; women more so than men. Meanwhile, around 800,000 people die each year due to depression, and it is the second leading cause of death for people aged between 15-29 years old globally.
Encouragingly, physical activity has been shown to help reduce depressive symptoms for those with or without clinical depression, while lowering the risk of an individual developing clinical depression. As little as 30 minutes can bring down the likelihood of depression by more than 40%.