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Mental Health Week 2023: Why Exercise Matters

Posted on the 15th May 2023


Exercise has long been lauded for its beneficial impact on our health.

While the physical positives, such as lowered blood pressure, reduced risk of diabetes and cancer, and healthy ageing, are well-known, a greater understanding of the effects on mental health is now becoming apparent.

While it is already acknowledged that exercise releases neurotransmitters such as dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin that have a positive impact on our brains, studies over the last decade have specifically examined the link between mood and activity levels.

One of the most interesting projects noted the importance of myokines. Dubbed ‘hope molecules’, these small proteins are found amongst the chemicals secreted into the bloodstream when muscles contract.

They then travel to the brain where they act as a natural antidepressant that not only improves mood but also increases the ability to learn, improves the capacity for locomotor activity, and protects the brain from the negative effects of ageing.

This so-called ‘muscle-brain cross-talk’ is further boosted by the myokines’ ability to improve metabolism, reduce inflammation and increase muscle strength.

Meanwhile, the largest collective analysis of 41 studies on the effect of exercise on major depressive disorder and depressive symptoms showed moderate to large positive effects on those participating.

This has seen a rise in social prescriptions, with GPs in Australia turning to activity-based remedies such as Park Runs to treat a range of ailments.

A 2019 report from the RACGP and the Consumers Health Forum (CHF) found the practice of social prescribing – referring patients to non-medical activities such as fitness programs, yoga and meditation – could improve health and well-being outcomes for people with chronic illness.

The move from a purely medical model of care to one that also utilizes physical activity and community engagement has also been used in the UK, with NHS mental health trusts prescribing surfing, roller skating, and gardening to young people in a bid to help them feel less anxious and depressed.

In Norway, a study showed that physically active teenagers had higher self-esteem and life satisfaction, particularly senior high school girls. Conversely, it was found that amongst university students, there was a clear association between inactivity, poor mental health, self-harm and suicide attempts.

While the connections between mental and physical health, especially for young people, are increasingly obvious, inactivity is on the rise.

According to 24-hour movement guidelines developed by Canadian researchers, children aged between five and 17 should spend an hour a day doing moderate to vigorous exercise, spend no more than two hours a day in front of a screen, and get at least eight hours of sleep a night.

However, in 2019 it was revealed that just 9.7 per cent of 14-year-olds in the UK managed all three recommendations, with more than three-quarters of teenagers spending more than two hours a day interacting with screens.

In the USA, a study of 40,000 young people linked screen time to dips in curiosity, self-control, emotional stability and psychological wellbeing.

As we learn more about the strong links between our physical and mental health, the importance of incorporating movement into our daily lives is becoming more pronounced and we are already seeing a shift towards preventative healthcare.

Related: Screen time linked to poor childhood language development

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