The Importance of Physical Activity on One's Mental Health
Edited by: Luxshimi Nageswaran
What is Mental Health? Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It greatly impacts how we feel, think, and act. It also helps regulate stress levels, determine how we relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence to adulthood (2). Over the course of life, thoughts, moods, and behaviours can be affected if one experiences mental health problems. Many factors contribute to these problems, including:
Biological factors, such as genes or brain chemistry
Life experiences, such as trauma or abuse
Family history of mental health problems
Prioritizing mental health can be emotionally strengthening and can encourage effectiveness, efficiency, and efficacy in daily activities.
How can Physical Activity help your Mental Health?
Physical activity is an umbrella term that includes sub-categories such as sports, leisure activities, dance, and physical exercise (1). Mental and physical health are equally important components of one’s overall health, and an increase in habitual physical activity has been cross-sectionally associated with greater emotional well-being (1,5). Sedentary behaviour is directly associated with poor physical health, and indirectly associated with poor mental health and a decreased quality of life. Prolonged periods of sedentary behaviour increase inflammatory markers that may exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety (5). Those who are more active tend to be less anxious and depressed. Sedentary people who engage in a new exercise program experience relief from their depressive symptoms (2). We can produce natural pain killers and stress-combating hormones when we partake in physical activities, which can also lead to the development of a sense of confidence and self-worth (3). Additionally, the social contact and support from others increases the beneficial effects of physical exercise on an individual’s mental health.
How COVID-19 impacted Health
In order to help flatten the curve and decrease the infection rate of COVID-19, most regions made the decision to close gyms, indoor activities and group sports, which unfortunately had significant consequences on the health and well-being of citizens (1). The pandemic increased sedentary time by 10% or by approximately 30 minutes per day. To put this into perspective, increasing sedentary time by just one hour has been associated with a 12% greater risk of mortality over a 6-year period (5). The lack of accessibility and motivation to take part in physical activity had a ripple effect, and ultimately amplified mental distress and uncertainty within communities. There is a primary concern that higher psychological stress and moderate levels of depression and anxiety associated with the pandemic could easily deteriorate into mental illness, including in individuals without a prior diagnosis (3). Shifting from having the freedom to be outside to having to do everything at home has definitely caused individuals to feel more anxious and experience a lack motivation, as decreasing their social support systems has led to less physical activity (5). It is difficult enough to keep up an active lifestyle under normal circumstances, but this has been more difficult for some during quarantine.
Although it may seem as though the pandemic has only brought negative outcomes, there is a paradox associated with mental health being both a motivator and barrier to physical activity. Some reported having more motivation, as there was a shift in the reasoning behind why they were moving their body. Individuals were less motivated by appearance and physical health, and instead were more driven by mental health and well-being. Anxiety reduction, sleep improvements and stress relief are the top outcomes that continue to motivate individuals during the pandemic (5).
Suggestions to help improve your Mental and Physical Health during the Pandemic
Exercising during quarantine:
30 mins with moderate intensity every day and/or at least 20 min with vigorous intensity every other day (1).
Zumba/Dancing: Dancing has been associated with mental and physical health benefits, which may directly or indirectly affect quality of life (5).
Breaking up sedentary time with short frequent breaks:
E.g., 1–2 minutes every half hour
This is sufficient to negate the negative health outcomes that are associated with sedentary behaviour.
Shorter frequent breaks are easier to adhere to than longer infrequent breaks (3).
E.g., 5-10 mins every day or every other day
This allows the individual to connect with themselves and provides a sense of ownership.
Talking with a trusted individual:
Being able to voice how feelings can have a rippling effect on improving health.
You begin to get a sense of what you need to do for your body both physically and mentally.
Prioritizing mental health can be emotionally strengthening and can encourage effectiveness, efficiency, and efficacy in daily activities
Mental and physical health are equally important components of overall health and an increase in habitual physical activity has been cross-sectionally associated with greater emotional well-being
The lack of accessibility and motivation during the pandemic to take part in physical activity has had a ripple effect, ultimately amplifying mental distress and uncertainty within communities
There is a primary concern that higher psychological stress and moderate levels of depression and anxiety associated with the pandemic can easily deteriorate into mental illness including individuals without a prior diagnosis
Individuals experienced an increase in motivation when their mindset focused on improving their mental health and well-being instead of appearance
Amatriain-Fernández, S., Murillo-Rodríguez, E. S., Gronwald, T., Machado, S., & Budde, H. (2020). Benefits of physical activity and physical exercise in the time of pandemic. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(S1). https://doi.org/10.1037/tra0000643 (4)
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018, January 26). Learn About Mental Health - Mental Health - CDC. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/learn/index.htm.
Hammami, A., Harrabi, B., Mohr, M., & Krustrup, P. (2020). Physical activity and coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19): specific recommendations for home-based physical training. Managing Sport and Leisure, 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1080/23750472.2020.1757494
Kaminsky, T. (2020, June 17). Mental Health Exercises for a Strong Mind: OH Employee Benefits Group. Kaminsky & Associates. https://teamkaminsky.com/mental-health-exercises-for-a-strong-mind-oh-employee-benefits-group/.
Marashi, M., Nicholson, E., Ogrodnik, M., Fenesi, B., & Heisz, J. (2020). A Mental Health Paradox: Mental health was both a motivator and barrier to physical activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.09.03.280719
Mental Health. Burnley Together. (2020, October 13). https://burnleytogether.org.uk/our-services/mental-health/.
Skinner, A. B.-P. (2019, November 4). Using Physical Activity To Help Your Mental Health! Blog Home. https://www.sst.training/blog/blog-post/using-physical-activity-to-help-your-mental-health/.