FREEPHONE 0330 058 1579
7 Days a Week 08:00 - 20:00
featured image

The Link Between Physical and Mental Health

There has been a long-standing debate concerning physical exercise’s impact on mental health conditions – whether positive, negative, or a source for potential treatments, but the research is still ongoing.

However. individuals who engage in physical exercise or take part in physical activity regularly often report positive feelings, the ability to forget any stressors that may be in other aspects of their lives, and a generally higher self-reflection on wellbeing.

But what is the basis of this? Why can physical exercise potentially decrease the negative aspects of mental health?

In this article, the idea of physical exercise will be explored, as well as its impact on mental health, and the best ways in which an individual may be able to implement physical activity into part of their everyday routine.

What are physical activity and exercise?

Physical exercise refers to any activity that is taken part in as an attempt to maintain/improve an individual’s health, as well as making them stronger in that area.

This can include a variety of activities, from more stereotypical exercise activities such as football, tennis, and running, but it can also include less high-impact sports such as swimming, yoga, and walking.

Depending on the individual, these different types of physical activity will have more or less appeal, with some individuals opting for high-impact activities, whereas others (such as elderly individuals or those who struggle with their general health) may prefer to take part in lower impact sports.

Every individual is different, so there is no right or wrong way to take part in physical exercise – doing something that you enjoy and look forward to is generally the best practice!

What are the physical health benefits of exercise?

Studies have shown that individuals who take part in lifelong physical exercise activities are more likely to live longer, as well as have a higher chance of delaying specific disorders and conditions in later life (1).

Though this study focuses on lifelong and regular exercise routines, there are still many physical benefits to taking part in exercise less regularly or starting a routine later in life.

Depending on the activity, an individual can build strength (as mentioned above), but they can also gain many other skills across different areas e.g., balance, improved grip, reflexes etc.

As both a positive physical and mental health effect, physical exercise can also change the way an individual’s body looks, sometimes increasing the individual’s self-image and self-esteem in some cases.

The Link Between Exercise and Mental Health

In general, physical and regular exercise is thought to improve mental health conditions’ effects as a result of the physiological and biochemical changes that occur in the body at the time of exercise (2).

This includes the release of endorphins into the system which can reduce feelings of pain, stress, anxiety, and also increase the individual’s general feeling of well-being.

It also includes psychological factors such as the increase in self-efficacy (a belief in oneself to behave in a way to achieve specific goals) and the concept of distraction i.e., when the individual is taking part in physical exercise – and for some time afterward – they will not be focusing on the stressors in their life.

The following subheadings outline some of the key mental health issues that individuals struggle with and how they may be improved with the initiation of exercise and other physical activities.

1. Anxiety and Stress

Although much of the research on anxiety and exercise has been limited by the samples and experimenting restrictions, there has been a long-standing link between exercise and a reduction in symptoms of anxiety (3).

Though a lot of this research has been focused on the anxiety surrounding body image (especially in women) and exercise (4), there have been many other proven mental health benefits to partaking in exercise, especially if it is not something that the individual has taken part in before.

2. Depression

When compared to psychological and pharmacological approaches to treating the effects of depression, it has been shown that exercise can also be beneficial – if not more efficient in some cases (5).

This is because the elements that make up physical exercise often counteract the effects of depression. For example, someone who is feeling isolated and lonely may massively benefit from joining a social physical activity i.e., football clubs at the weekend etc.

In addition, the benefits of exercise (such as the release of endorphins) may help the individual to focus on the physical exercise itself rather than the struggles that they may face in other aspects of their life.

Over time, this may lead to a greater reduction in symptoms, especially if the individual begins to take part in physical activity on a regular basis.

3. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

In many cases, the research concerning physical exercise and specific mental health issues is not very representative, with most research surrounding ADHD and exercise focusing on young children and teenagers who are struggling with the disorder (6).

In these specific examples, ADHD symptoms were shown to be most affected when exercise was combined with additional treatments such as behavioural counselling and pharmacological interventions in some cases.

As usual, it is recognised that further research is required in most of these fields, especially when concerning specific disorders and mental health issues.

What are the mental health benefits of exercise?

As seen from the subheadings preceding this, there are many benefits that individuals struggling with different mental health issues can take advantage of when partaking in physical and regular exercise.

Most of these have to do with the physical effects and direct mental health effects, but it is also vital to remember the social benefits that physical exercise may come with.

Though this has an indirect effect on mental health, there are many benefits that individuals who are struggling with mental health may gain from the social connections they make during this time.

Physical exercise and addiction

Though some individuals can struggle with addictions to exercise, physical activity, and improving themselves through these actions, there are also many benefits that individuals can take from exercise when struggling with addiction or substance abuse.

This includes many different types of addiction, including shopping, gambling, sex, and substance addictions.

One study named exercise as a strong “beneficial adjunct” for those who may be struggling with alcoholism or are part of rehabilitation programmes (7).

This means that although exercise may not be beneficial on its own, it can greatly help within the stages of rehabilitation such as the detox stage, rehabilitation and therapy, as well as being part of the aftercare stages.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, it is important that specialist help is sought as soon as possible to ensure that the addiction does not worsen and cause lifelong effects.

Types of Physical Exercise

As mentioned previously in this article, there are many different types of exercise that individuals may choose to partake in.

The physical activity that the individual chooses will depend on their fitness level, energy levels, current medications, any chronic diseases that they may have, as well as their access to different types of exercise.

An individual may choose strenuous exercise, moderate exercise, or acute exercise depending on their skill sets and personal choices.

Some of the most common and recommended forms of physical exercise are outlined and described across the following subheadings.

1. Yoga

Though it can be thought of as a relatively modern trend, yoga has actually been around for thousands of years and promotes positive flow and strength within one’s own body.

This can greatly reduce the effects of anxiety and depression by bringing the individual’s focus to themselves in the moment and drawing their attention to self-improvement and discipline.

Individuals may choose to take up yoga through a local class, by following online tutorials, or by creating their own flow, perhaps based on moves they have seen or just on what feels good for them.

2. Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise refers to any physical activity that increases oxygen flow through the body. This is a slightly more general form of exercise than those previously mentioned but is still generally beneficial for individuals in terms of their physical and mental health.

Aerobic activity improves oxygen flow to the brain, allowing the brain to function at a higher capacity and without the limitations of oxygen starvation.

Examples of aerobic activity include yoga, swimming, jogging, dance, rowing, hiking, and cardio activities (the next exercise in the subheading beneath this).

As always, it is vital that individuals partake in activities suitable to their level and do not attempt anything that could be potentially dangerous without suitable supervision or instruction.

3. Cardio

Cardio-based activities (also known as cardiovascular activities) are those that stimulate the functioning of the heart and lungs, therefore also increasing their strength over time.

This form of exercise is also highly effective in the treatment of mental health issues due to the involvement of most of the body. By working the body together – in sync – the individual will be more focused on the activity itself and not on the issues that they may have faced or struggled with before the exercise session.

How to Start a Physical Exercise Plan

The most important thing to consider when starting a new physical exercise plan is one’s own physical fitness and the exercise programmes that are therefore most suitable for them.

It is important to factor in rest, time to recover, and taking it slowly at the start.

This will reduce the risk of injury and the individual’s chance of burnout (either physical or mental – when faced with a new task or routine).

It is also important to be flexible; some physical activities may not work for everyone, so don’t be afraid to move on with something if it is not suitable for you (i.e., matching the effects of exercise that you are expecting) and your needs and/or requirements of physical exercise.

Where to get help

If you or someone you know has a mental health issue, then help must be sought as soon as possible.

This can be something as simple as talking to those around the individual but can also include entering suitable and effective treatment for their specific mental health issue(s).

In terms of addiction and substance abuse, there are multiple sources of support where individuals can get access to free and confidential support, so take a look at some of the options available to you or your loved one in your local area today.

You can also contact mental health charities such as Mind.

Mental health issues – and addiction specifically – can quickly worsen over time; this is why it is vital that individuals seek help as soon as they are able and willing. No one can be forced to partake in something that they do not want to, but encouraging individuals to seek help is the first step on their recovery journey.


[1] Ruegsegger, G.N. and Booth, F.W., 2018. Health benefits of exercise. Cold Spring Harbor perspectives in medicine, 8(7), p.a029694.

[2] Mikkelsen, K., Stojanovska, L., Polenakovic, M., Bosevski, M. and Apostolopoulos, V., 2017. Exercise and mental health. Maturitas, 106, pp.48-56.

[3] Stonerock, G.L., Hoffman, B.M., Smith, P.J. and Blumenthal, J.A., 2015. Exercise as treatment for anxiety: systematic review and analysis. Annals of behavioral medicine, 49(4), pp.542-556.

[4] Eklund, R.C. and Crawford, S., 1994. Active women, social physique anxiety, and exercise. Journal of sport and exercise psychology, 16(4), pp.431-448.

[5] Cooney, G.M., Dwan, K., Greig, C.A., Lawlor, D.A., Rimer, J., Waugh, F.R., McMurdo, M. and Mead, G.E., 2013. Exercise for depression. Cochrane database of systematic reviews, (9).

[6] Neudecker, C., Mewes, N., Reimers, A.K. and Woll, A., 2019. Exercise interventions in children and adolescents with ADHD: a systematic review. Journal of attention disorders, 23(4), pp.307-324.

[7] Taylor, C.B., Sallis, J.F. and Needle, R., 1985. The relation of physical activity and exercise to mental health. Public health reports, 100(2), p.195.

Related posts