We’ve all heard that moving is good for our bodies and that the more we do it, the better. Being active not only supports circulatory, muscular and skeletal system health, helping to make us fitter and stronger, it also has the power to reduce the likelihood of some cancers developing. So, what about our minds? What happens to our mental wellbeing when we are physically active?
It turns out, exercise can play a key role in reducing the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Even for moderate to severe cases of depression or for those experiencing chronic health or neurological conditions, where the risk of developing depression is greater. Exercise can also help with improving our sleep quality, which can be impacted by depression and anxiety. And whilst engaging in regular physical activity in leisure time not only helps to reduce symptoms of depression in adults, it may even play a role in preventing depression from developing.
So, how much physical activity is ‘enough’? And can we count the house-work? The Australian Government recommends that the average adult should aim for 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate intensity physical activity each week or 1.25 to 2.5 hours of vigorous intensity physical activity, or a combination of both intensity levels that meets somewhere in the middle. Moderate intensity activities are things like brisk walking, swimming or even mowing the lawn (think of that as a two-for-one!) Vigorous activity also varies from independent activities to organised team sports, and this might look like jogging, cycling or playing a more fast-paced sport (e.g., netball or football).
When it comes to exercising for mental health, the research currently varies. It has been suggested by the European Psychiatric Association to engage supervised moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (or a combination of aerobic and resistance exercise) for 45-50 minutes, twice or three times a week for several weeks, to effectively target depression. Whilst this seems highly prescriptive, other research shows that there might be a bit more flexibility when it comes to choosing activities that are both effective in supporting mental health and suited to one’s culture, ability and preferences. A recent review of existing studies found evidence of benefits across a variety of physical activities, including cardio, strength, yoga and mixed-mode exercise, when it comes to anxiety and depression. More specifically, resistance exercise (e.g., using weights) proved to have the largest effects on depressive symptoms, while mind-body and yoga-based exercise better targeted anxiety (though some of those activities were found to still be effective for depression). What this analysis tells us is that different types of exercise may play a role in managing different symptoms. The review also found that greater effects were associated with higher intensity physical activity and shorter durations of exercise in the intervention, when compared with a longer time spent exercising. Despite this, other studies have found mixed results for the effects of light-intensity physical activity on depression and inconclusive results for it’s effect on anxiety, distress and overall mental health. This suggests a need for further, robust research to solidify our exact understanding of the role of exercise on mental health.
How does this play into our wellbeing and activity at work? Whilst the effects of physical activity on mental health remains unclear, there is a known risk to mental health with inactivity, specifically prolonged periods of sitting. With full-time employment rising and the growth of technology increasing our time spent seated at work, it is important to consider ways that we can create opportunities for movement in our workday to support our health. Opportunities for increased movement can range to suit a variety of calendars and available resources. This could be anything from planned exercise (e.g., cycling the commute or organising a walking meeting), to simply moving through the office more (e.g., standing to answer the phone or opting for the stairs over the lift). For more free, simple and practical tips to incorporate more physical activity in your workday, check out the WorkSafe Queensland website and BeUpstanding’s free resources.
A note from the Author
I would like to Acknowledge the Traditional Owners and their custodianship of the lands on which I researched and developed this content. I pay my respects to their Ancestors and their descendants, who continue cultural and spiritual connections to Country.
This blog was written by Melissa Osborn as part of her Master of Psychology (Health) placement with the BeUpstanding team.