ORDER NOW

Back to overview

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.

thumbnail

NOWATCH

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.

thumbnail

NOWATCH

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:

Callaghan P.. Exercise: a neglected intervention in mental health care? J Psychiatr Ment Health Nurs. 2004;11:476–483. Mikkelsen K, Stojanovska L, Polenakovic M, Bosevski M, Apostolopoulos V. Exercise and mental health. Maturitas. 2017;106:48-56 Guszkowska M. Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood. Psychiatr Pol. 2004;38(4):611-620. Peluso MA, Andrade LH. Physical activity and mental health: the association between exercise and mood. Clinics. 2005;60:61-70 Buman MP, King AC. Exercise as a Treatment to Enhance Sleep. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. 2010;4(6):500-514. doi:10.1177/1559827610375532 B.G. Berger, D.R. Owen, Mood alteration with yoga and swimming: aerobic ex- ercise may not be necessary, Percept. Mot. Skills 75 (3 Pt 2) (1992) 1331–1343. E.W. Martinsen, A. Hoffart, O. Solberg, Aerobic and non- aerobic forms of exercise in the treatment of anxiety and disorders, Stress Med. 5 (1989) 115–120. Sharma A, Madaan V, Petty FD. Exercise for Mental Health. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2006;8(2):106 Conroy, D. E. , Hyde, A. L. , Doerksen, S. E. , & Ribeiro, N. F. (2010). Implicit attitudes and explicit motivation prospectively predict physical activity. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 39(2), 112–118. 10.1007/s12160-010-9161-0 [PubMed] [CrossRef] [Google Scholar] Klaperski, S. , von Dawans, B. , Heinrichs, M. , & Fuchs, R. (2013). Does the level of physical exercise affect physiological and psychological responses to psychosocial stress in women? Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 14, 266–274. 10.1016/j.psychsport.2012.11.003 [CrossRef] [Google Scholar] Rimmele, U. , Seiler, R. , Marti, B. , Wirtz, P. H. , Ehlert, U. , & Heinrichs, M. (2009). The level of physical activity affects adrenal and cardiovascular reactivity to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 34, 190–198. 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2008.08.023 [PubMed] [CrossRef] [Google Scholar] Teisala, T. , Mutikainen, S. , Tolvanen, A. , Rottensteiner, M. , Leskinen, T. , Kaprio, J. , … Kujala, U. M. (2014). Associations of physical activity, fitness, and body composition with heart rate variability‐based indicators of stress and recovery on workdays: A cross‐sectional study. Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology, 34, 26–40. 10.1186/1745-6673-9-16 [PMC free article] [PubMed] [CrossRef] [Google Scholar Fox, K. R. (1999). The influence of physical activity on mental well‐being. Public Health Nutrition, 2(3a), 411–418. 10.1017/S1368980099000567 [PubMed] [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]

World Health Organization (2010). Global recommendations on physical activity for health. Schultchen D, Reichenberger J, Mittl T, et al. Bidirectional relationship of stress and affect with physical activity and healthy eating. Br J Health Psychol. 2019;24(2):315-333. doi:10.1111/bjhp.12355 Mikkelsen K, Stojanovska L, Polenakovic M, Bosevski M, Apostolopoulos V. Exercise and mental health. Maturitas. 2017;106:48-56 V.J. Harber, J.R. Sutton, Endorphins and exercise, Sports Med. 1 (2) (1984) 154–171. M.N. Janal, et al., Pain sensitivity, mood and plasma endocrine levels in man following long-distance running: effects of naloxone, Pain 19 (1) (1984) 13–25. Z. Tendzegolskis, A. Viru, E. Orlova, Exercise-induced changes of endorphin contents in hypothalamus: hypophysis, adrenals and blood plasma, Int. J. Sports Med. 12 (5) (1991) 495–49 J.S. Raglin, W.P. Morgan, Influence of exercise and quiet rest on state anxiety and blood pressure, Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 19 (5) (1987) 456–463. H.A. deVries, Tranquilizer effect of exercise: a critical review, Phys. Sportsmed. 9 (11) (1981) 46–55. M.R. Duchen, G. Szabadkai, Roles of mitochondria in human disease, Essays Biochem. 47 (2010) 115–137. X.H. Zhu, et al., Quantitative imaging of energy expenditure in human brain, Neuroimage 60 (4) (2012) 2107–2117. B. Czeh, M. Simon, Neuroplasticity and depression, Psychiatr. Hung. 20 (1) (2005) 4–17. M.M. Bharke, Anxiety reduction following exercise and meditation cognitive therapy and research, Cognit. Ther. Res. 2 (4) (1978). S. Nolen-Hoeksema, J. Morrow, B.L. Fredrickson, Response styles and the duration of episodes of depressed mood, J. Abnorm. Psychol. 102 (1) (1993) 20–28.

thumbnail

Muriël v. Oers

Science Writer @NOWATCH

muriel@nowatch.com

Share on social

Interesting articles

6 min read

5 science-backed tips to improve your sleep

Sleep is incredibly important for your physical and mental health. Bad sleep affects your mood, energy level, stress-resilience, immune system, productivity, concentration, memory, and the list goes on and on. Do you have

Read more

7 min read

How NOWATCH measures your stress levels with Biosensing

Do you ever feel very stressed or overwhelmed? Do you wish to manage your stress? With your NOWATCH wearable you can take control of your stress levels through a novel Biosensing Technology developed by Philips.

Read more

Back to top

Back to top

stay in the loop

By signing up, I agree with the data protection policy of NOWATCH.

Prinsengracht 769

1017 JZ Amsterdam

The Netherlands

Follow us on Instagram:

NOWATCH BV 2022 @ All rights reserved