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Benefits of physical activity for your mental health

7 min read

Benefits of physical activity for your mental health

Mental stress is a growing problem in modern society and is related to both mental and physical health issues.

The importance of physical activity for lowering stress and improving mental wellbeing is not always understood. In this article, NOWATCH wants to help you understand the effects of activity on your wellbeing for a balanced approach to health.

The effects of physical activity on your wellbeing

The mind-body connection is the link between your thoughts, feelings and emotions and your physical health. Researchers do still not fully understand the psychological and physiological processes behind this connection, but the relationship exists. Having a healthy body helps with a healthy mind, and the other way around is also true. Physical activity is one of the most important lifestyle factors that can improve both your physical and mental health. It’s a cheap, effective and natural way to improve the health of your mind. But what are exactly the effects of physical activity on your mental health?

Physical activity:

  • Relieves feelings of anxiety

  • Lowers stress levels

  • Improves sleep quality

  • Enhances your mood

  • Boosts your self-esteem

  • Improves your immune functions

  • Reduces depression symptoms 

And physical activity also improves your physical fitness, energy levels, and cardiovascular function which can contribute to your overall mental wellbeing as well.

What type of exercise can you do to improve your mood?

For your physical health, the World Health Organization recommends 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week. However, for your mental health, any type or duration of physical activity has positive effects. You can do aerobic exercise like cycling, running, swimming and hiking, or non-aerobic exercise that focuses on muscular strength, flexibility, balance, or coordination like yoga, tai chi, dancing, and material arts. So even gardening, a 10-minute walk, or some quick yoga stretches can lift your mood, and decrease stress and feelings of anxiety. 

With the NOWATCH awareable you can track the effects of any type or duration of activity on your stress levels and mental states. This can help you understand what activities work best for your body and mind.

The bidirectional relationship between exercise and stress

Physical activity involves movement of the body that results from skeletal muscles using energy. Even a medium amount of daily physical activity can help prevent and improve physical and mental well-being, including stress levels and self-confidence. Regular exercise is associated with lower cortisol levels, lower heart rate, and improved heart rate variability which all indicate lower levels of stress.

However, a bidirectional relationship exists between exercise and stress. When you are stressed, overwhelmed and tired, the last thing you may want to do is exercise. You may engage in less intense physical activities due to a lack of time or just because you don’t feel like you have enough energy. Therefore, in stressful times many people exhibit inactive behavior, while they actually need activity to feel better. A study by Stults-Kolehmainen and Sina even showed that stress predicts a decrease in physical activity in human beings. People tend to choose unhealthy behaviors like smoking, overeating, sedentary behavior, and drinking over physical activity to deal with stress.



What are the psychological processes behind this?

Researchers did not fully discover the secrets behind this mind-body connection yet, but there are some hypotheses that are currently being investigated:

  • Endorphins are molecules that transport signals in the brain (neurotransmitters) and help the brain to deal with pain and stress. They are sometimes called ‘happiness molecules’. After just half an hour of moderate physical activity, the brain releases endorphins which can make you feel good. However, this feeling typically does not last longer than one or two hours. 

  • An increase in body temperature because of exercise may be responsible for enhancing mood and reducing feelings of anxiety. When the brain temperature increases this may decrease muscle tension and overall feelings of relaxation.

  • Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt to changes and responses throughout life. Impaired neuroplasticity may contribute to poor mental health resulting from the inability to respond and adapt to stress. Aerobic exercise may contribute to improved mitochondrial function and neuroplasticity which may lower symptoms of depression or mood-related disorders. 

  • Physical activity can help distract someone from negative and worrying thoughts leading to an improvement of mood and reduction of depressive symptoms. Researchers call this a ‘mental time out’. 

  • The physiological effects of completing an effortful task such as exercise bring about a feeling of mastery which in itself elevates mood. Belief in your own ability to succeed in exercise helps to lift your mood and exercise even more. Physical activity is therefore linked to positive self-esteem and less depressive behavior.



Understand the impact of activity on your mental health with NOWATCH.

At NOWATCH we believe in balance. We do not track every step you take or each calorie you burn but want to provide you with an overview of how the activities you do relate to your mental wellbeing. Over longer periods of time, you can see what activity routine works for your body, mood and mind.

Sources and references:

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Muriël v. Oers

Science Writer @NOWATCH

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