How Physical Activity Improves Mental Health

Physical activity is well-known for its numerous health benefits, ranging from improved cardiovascular health to stronger muscles. However, the mental and emotional advantages of regular exercise are often overlooked. This blog post explores the profound impact of physical activity on our mental wellbeing, particularly its role in stress management, mood enhancement, and overall quality of life improvement.

Understanding Stress

Stress is an integral part of our lives, and it is often misunderstood. Stress, in essence, is our body's response to any demand or threat. It involves a complex series of physiological reactions that mobilize the body's resources to deal with the stressor, which could be any event or situation that requires adaptation.

When we encounter a stressor, our body initiates a stress response involving various systems. The endocrine system responds by adjusting the production of hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, and growth hormone. The autonomic nervous system also reacts, primarily through the activation of the sympathetic system, preparing the body for a 'fight or flight' response. The immune system gets involved too, initially decreasing the immune response and then ramping up antibody production.

Stress is not inherently harmful. In fact, it is essential for survival, as it facilitates adaptation to sudden changes. This positive form of stress is known as "eustress." However, when stress becomes chronic and the body fails to adapt effectively, it can lead to various health problems, both physical and psychological. This negative form of stress is known as "distress" and can manifest as anxiety, depression, insomnia, fatigue, and other health issues.

The Role of Exercise in Stress Management

Physical activity, particularly aerobic exercise, offers a potent antidote to stress. It promotes relaxation, improves mood, and reduces mental stress. Let's delve into two key strategies: progressive muscle relaxation and regular, moderate-intensity aerobic exercise.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Developed in the 1930s by American physician Edmund Jacobson, progressive muscle relaxation is a method that involves tensing and then relaxing each muscle group in the body. This technique aims to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps counteract the stress-induced activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Regular practice of this method can lead to a state of deep relaxation and reduced anxiety.

If you're interested in exploring the progressive muscle relaxation technique, the following instructions will guide you through its proper execution.


Begin your relaxation practice by finding a tranquil space and making yourself comfortable, either seated or lying down. Close your eyes and initiate the process with several deep, calming breaths to set the stage for relaxation.

Tension and Relaxation Phases

This practice begins with the muscles in the feet and gradually progresses upwards to the head (from left to right in the image below). Hold the tension on each body parts for about 5 seconds, then release and notice the sensation of relaxation. Repeat if desired.

Finishing the Relaxation

After completing the muscle relaxation exercises, return your focus to deep, slow breathing to enhance relaxation. Mentally scan your body for any remaining tension, and actively relax those areas. Finally, gently reawaken your body by moving your fingers and toes, opening your eyes, and slowly getting up, ensuring a smooth transition back to full alertness.

Aerobic Exercise and Mental Health

Aerobic exercise, or cardio, is another powerful tool for managing stress and enhancing mental health. Regular physical activity has been associated with a reduction in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress, an increase in general well-being, and an improvement in quality of life.

The Benefits of Aerobic Exercise

Engaging in activities such as running, cycling, swimming, or brisk walking increases the heart rate and promotes the release of endorphins, often known as the "feel-good" hormones, which can lead to improvements in mood and reductions in stress and anxiety levels. Here some benefits that aerobic exercise can offer:

  • Impact on Stress and Anxiety: Regular aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and boost self-esteem. The rhythmic nature of aerobic activities can also have a meditative effect on the mind, helping to break the cycle of negative thoughts that can feed anxiety and depression.
  • Depression and Mood Disorders: Studies have demonstrated that aerobic exercise can be an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression, with benefits that can be comparable to antidepressant medication for some individuals. Exercise stimulates various brain chemicals that may leave you feeling happier and more relaxed, acting as a natural anti-depressant.
  • Sleep and Energy Levels: Engaging in regular aerobic exercise can improve the quality of sleep, helping you to fall asleep faster and deepening your sleep. It also boosts energy levels by enhancing cardiovascular efficiency and overall stamina.

Evidence indicates that even short-term aerobic exercises at moderate intensity can significantly enhance mental health. For example, research involving university students demonstrated that regular aerobic exercise proved more effective in improving mental well-being than cognitive-based strategies.

Implementing Aerobic Exercise for Mental Health

To reap the mental health benefits of aerobic exercise, aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week, as recommended by health authorities. It's important to choose activities that you enjoy and can commit to regularly to ensure consistency and long-term benefits.

The Future of Exercise and Mental Health

Given the increasing prevalence of emotional distress, particularly among younger populations, incorporating physical activity into daily routines is more crucial than ever. It's time to acknowledge that exercise should play a permanent role in people's lives, regardless of age.

Our lifestyles have changed drastically over the last half-century, leading to a sedentary existence for many. This shift has had negative consequences for our health, contributing to obesity, metabolic diseases, cancer, orthopedic problems, stress, anxiety, depression, and more.

While it may be challenging to replace a normal level of physical activity (e.g., 2 hours of walking a day) with sports or fitness training, it is arguably the only viable way to ensure the psycho-physical health of the general population.

In conclusion, physical activity should not be optional but a right and a duty for each of us. It's time to embrace the mind-body connection and realize the transformative power of exercise for our mental health.

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The Wellyme Team

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