Updated: Jul 29
The connection between physical activity and mental health is of great importance as it has been proven to have numerous beneficial effects on our overall well-being. From increased happiness, enhanced cognitive functioning, better sleep, and helping stave off chronic illness, engaging in any form of movement can help us feel better in our day-to-day lives. Additionally, the benefits of physical activity, including short episodes of movement, can be noticed immediately afterward. No matter who you are, research shows almost everyone can benefit from physical activity. Therefore, it is important for us to understand the positive impacts of movement on our daily lives and what types and amount of physical activity is good for us.
Guidelines for movement
The type and amount of physical activity changes depending on your age. Speaking to your doctor before starting any physical activity to mitigate any potential risks is important. It is also recommended to increase physical activity gradually over time, notably if you have a health condition or are inactive. All recommendations for movement are from the Physical Activity Guidelines For Americans, which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issues. For additional information, please visit health.gov.
Preschool-Aged Children: Children ages 3 to 5 years should be active in various physical activities throughout the day.
Children and Adolescents: Children, ages 6 to 17, are encouraged to spend at least one hour a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. Movement at this age should include aerobic activities, muscle strengthening, and bone strengthening.
Adults: To obtain maximum benefits, adults should get at least 150 to 300 minutes of movement a week. However, some physical activity is better than no activity at all. It is also recommended adults engage in muscle-strengthening exercises roughly 2 days a week.
Older Adults: Older adults should follow the same guidelines as adults but include other multicomponent physical activities, such as balance training.
After engaging in a single session of moderate to vigorous physical activity, your body releases endorphins, or the “feed good” chemicals, in the brain. These chemicals help reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression while promoting a sense of happiness and well-being. Additionally, you may experience improved sleep and improved cognitive functioning.
Over time, exercise has been shown to be an effective stress reliever. When you engage in physical activity, your body increases production of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that moderates the brain's response to stress. Regular exercise can also improve your ability to cope with stress by providing a healthy outlet for tension and promoting relaxation.
It is important to note that while physical activity can be a valuable tool for supporting mental health, it should not be seen as a substitute for professional help when needed. If you are experiencing significant mental health challenges, it is essential to consult with a healthcare provider or mental health professional for appropriate guidance and treatment.
Enhanced cognitive function
Physical activity has been linked to improved cognitive function, including enhanced memory, attention, and creativity. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, promoting new brain cell growth and releasing
chemicals that support cognitive health. It also reduces the risk of cognitive decline and helps maintain brain health as you age.
Regular physical activity can improve sleep quality and help alleviate insomnia. Exercise raises body temperature, and the subsequent drop in temperature after exercise promotes feelings of relaxation and facilitates better sleep. Additionally, the reduction in stress and anxiety associated with physical activity can contribute to more restful sleep.
Participating in physical activities often involves social interaction through team sports, group fitness classes, or outdoor activities. Social connections are essential for mental well-being and can help combat feelings of loneliness and isolation. Engaging in physical activity with others provides opportunities for social support, camaraderie, and the development of meaningful relationships.
No matter how you choose to be active, all types of movement can make a difference in your mental health. Remember, you may need to consider starting off small and adding to your daily routine. Setting goals for yourself and identifying any barriers you may have in reaching your goals can also be beneficial.
By: Jacqueline White, MA, LPC and Jason Ross, LMSW Intern