Physical activity is important in the prevention of mental ill-health, with strong evidence that it reduces the risk of depression and the risk of suicidal thoughts. Depression affects around 1 million Australian adults each year, with a solid body of evidence showing that even low amounts of physical activity each day can protect against depression. One study showed that people who engage in physical activity (e.g., gardening/walking) for an average of 17 minutes a day were at a 63% reduced risk of developing future depression relative to those who did not engage in physical activity.
Physical activity also promotes positive mental health, or ‘wellbeing’. For example, physical activity can foster social support, social inclusion and community development. Volunteer organised, community events such as ParkRun – where people join up to run around a local park, can improve social cohesion and provide an opportunity for volunteers to contribute to their community while benefiting their health and fitness. Physical activity also provides opportunities to enhance self-confidence, a sense of achievement, and resilience. With the immediate benefit of increasing positive affect, which means ‘feeling good’ or experiencing enjoyment, physical activity can improve wellbeing and reduce negative mood. All of these contribute to positive mental health.
But not all types of physical activity are equally beneficial for mental health. Physical activity or exercise during spare time, for example walking, running, going to the gym and playing sport, are beneficial for mental health. In contrast, occupational physical activity and housework do not have appear to be associated positively with mental health. So, for mental health benefits, we need to focus on promoting leisure-time physical activity.
The need to shift focus in physical activity promotion
Given the importance of physical activity, it is concerning that in developed countries most people across all age groups do not participate in enough physical activity. For example, in Australia, only 1.9% of 15-17 year olds, 15.0% of 18-64 year olds and 17.2% of 65 year olds and over meet physical activity guidelines. These low levels of physical activity contribute to poor mental health outcomes.
Increasing physical activity is a challenge and population levels of participation in physical activity have remained relatively unchanged over the past few decades. One reason for the lack of progress is because main focus of physical activity promotion efforts has been on physical health benefits. Along with this, it has been assumed that people are ‘rational’ and motivated to participate if they believe that physical activity is good for their health. However, we know that people are rarely motivated by consequences that are years away and fear of negative outcomes, such as poor future health, does little to motivate action today.
Instead, a focus on other, more immediate psychological and social benefits of physical activity is likely to be more effective at motivating people to be physically active. For example, a focus on feeling good, enjoyment, managing daily stress, a sense of achievement, the opportunity to socialise with friends or spend time with family are likely to be more motivating for most people. Surprisingly, we know little about what makes physical activity more or less enjoyable, but this is an area gaining increasing research interest. Emerging evidence suggests, for example, that moderate, rather than high, intensity physical activity is more enjoyable; and that being active outdoors is more enjoyable. A focus on enjoyment and feeling good is likely to mean that people keep participating in physical activity, while leading to even greater mental health benefits.
Evidence is clear
The evidence is clear – physical activity is a universal, affordable platform for all to improve mental health and build mentally healthy communities. But it is of concern that most people do not do enough physical activity – and this is the case across all age groups. A focus on the immediate, psychological and social benefits of physical activity, such as enjoyment and feeling good will have a double benefit – this will lead to higher levels of ongoing participation in physical activity, and will also amplify the mental health benefits of physical activity
Melinda Craike is Associate Professor of Physical Activity and Health in the Institute for Health and Sport and Acting Health Policy Lead at the Mitchell Institute for Education and Health Policy, Victoria University. Alex Parker is Professor of Physical Activity and Mental Health and leads the Healthy and Inclusive Communities: Physical Activity, Sport and Culture research program and the Physical Activity, Body Image and Mental Health research group within the Institute for Health and Sport.