The statement ‘Be more physically active’ often forms part of the discourse surrounding mental health, both in digital and print media.
At Rener Wellbeing, we believe this is very important, given the four prongs of our holistic approach to wellbeing: mental health, physical activity, sleep and nutrition. However, not everyone understands exactly how and why physical activity impacts our mental health.
Indeed, many people find it difficult to become physically active in a sustainable way or event to get started.
This article clarifies what physical activity means, highlights how physical activity impacts our mental health, and provides some tips on how we can sustainably integrate physical activity into our busy lives.
What is Physical Activity?
During my MSc research at Loughborough University, I found that most executive-level employees assume that when someone is active, it means they exercise frequently.
Physical activity doesn’t just include things like going to the gym or running. Public Health England highlight in their paper ‘Everybody Active Everyday’, that people can be active through ‘recreational activities’ such as yoga, walking or active play.
They also highlight that doing ‘everyday activities’ such as gardening, heavy housework or walking also count as physical activity (p.4).
Not enough people within the UK population have activity levels high enough to be considered healthy. Alarmingly, according to the British Heart Foundation, 39% of the population are not active enough for good health, based on self-reported data.
An even more shocking figure is that only 5% of the population are active enough to be considered in good health when accelerometers were used to objectively measure their levels of physical activity, according to Chaudhurry and Esliger, in Health Survey for England 2008, Volume 1: Physical Activity and Fitness.
Clearly, many people struggle to be physically active in a sustainable way, and therefore the mental health tip of ‘improve your physical activity levels’ is easier said than done for a large portion of the UK.
How Does Physical Activity Impact Our Health?
Improving our mental health and wellbeing doesn’t only impact our health and happiness, but it also significantly impacts aspects of our professional lives, including productivity, performance, satisfaction and engagement.
In April, Mad World published our case studyhighlighting how we helped improve Shift8*’s employee wellbeing, leading to healthier and happier staff as well as impacting their bottom line. This is a good example of how improving wellbeing also positively impacts work.
On top of physical health benefits — such as reducing our all-cause mortality, alongside more than twenty chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes — physical activity benefits our mental health.
Physical activity makes you feel good because it releases chemicals such as serotonin and endorphins, which help regulate our moods, according to Health Direct, an Australian national public health service.
I’m sure if you remember the last time you did a bout of moderate to vigorous physical activity, you’ll probably agree that it made you feel better and think more clearly. You’ll also probably agree that you ended up being more productive at whatever your next task was, be it doing the laundry or writing a report.
Guszkowska, in Psychiatria Polska, highlights that exercise also increases our body temperature and blood circulation in the brain, which affects our hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and leads to an improved physiological reactivity to stress.
Guszkowska also explains that physical activity improves our levels of self-efficacy, distraction and cognitive dissonance.
Being able to deal with stress while having more confidence, focus and feeling comfortable with your thoughts will significantly impact how you feel at home and work, as well as how you interact with your colleagues, friends and family.
In the International Journal of Sports Medicine, Martinsen et al. found that people with anxiety and depression often have lower levels of physical activity. They attribute it to the fact that anxiety and depression are often linked with passivity and withdrawal.
There have been several longitudinal studies indicating that increased levels of physical activity over time reduce the tendency of developing depression. Dunn and colleagues, in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that those with depression that were hitting the recommended levels of physical activity benefitted far more than those with lower levels of physical activity.
The fact that feeling depressed or anxious makes it harder for most to be physically active, yet physical activity has preventative (and even curative) powers with regard to reducing levels of anxiety and depression, is another of many unfair correlations.
The Mental Health Foundationhighlight that physical activity can help people get out into the world and have more social interactions. This can help those with issues such as loneliness and isolation get in touch with others, and potentially help them feel better over time.
On the other hand, those with social anxiety or agoraphobia may perceive social interactions as a barrier to physical activity, according to Raglin and Wilson in ‘Exercise Testing and Exercise Prescription for Special Cases’.
This is one reason why understanding people’s barriers and enablers to physical activity is important, before you can give them tips on how to increase their activity levels sustainably.
Physical activity also improves sleep, which on its own has myriad effects on your mental health and mood. I wrote a Mad World articleon how sleep impacts mental health last month, read that if you want more information on the topic.
Easy Ways to Sustainably Integrate Physical Activity into Your Busy Life
● Try to look internally at what has stopped you or enabled you to be active in the past. What are your current goals for your physical activity? Reflecting on this information, you can try to put together a personalised plan to start being more physically active in a way that will suit your life and preferences, rather than what you may see others doing in the gym or park.
● Doing one session is better than none, so start slowly and build up from there. Often, people think they have to go from zero to five physical activity sessions a week, based on the UK’s recommended amounts. Think back to your last physical activity-based New Year’s resolution — are you still implementing it? How long did it last? If you haven’t been active for a long time, perhaps even since your last PE lesson at school, starting again can be a source of anxiety itself. Taking small steps will make the process more sustainable.
● Try to integrate physical activity into your day-to-day if you find it hard to find time elsewhere. Take the stairs instead of the lift, or get off the bus or tube a stop early and walk briskly for 15 minutes. If you can do that twice a day, five days a week, you’ll be hitting your recommended levels of physical activity!
● Do you find running or going to the gym boring or unpleasant? Then don’t do those forms of physical activity! There are many ways to be active, such as playing sports, dancing, yoga, mowing the lawn, through to taking the stairs instead of the lifts. Try different things out — if you enjoy what you’re doing you are far more likely to sustain the effort.
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