We all know the benefits that getting active can have on physical health, but an ever-increasing body of evidence highlights the importance of staying active when it comes to mental health too.
Today is World Mental Health Day, so what better time to take a deeper look a these issues, and the impact that sport and physical activity can have?
How widespread are mental health issues?
One in four people suffer from some kind of mental health problem each year in the UK, and it’s clear that mental health and wellbeing is an important topic.
Many students worry about disclosing mental health issues, but a study from YouGov showed that 92% of students knew at least one person who had suffered from a mental health issue. The same study revealed that 84% of students viewed mental illness as seriously as physical illnesses. It’s also reassuring to know that only a tiny 3% of students said they would be more cautious around a person with mental health issues.
How does staying active help?
Countless studies have highlighted the positive effects that leading an active lifestyle can have on mental health.
In 2005, a review by Penedo and Dahn looked into the effects of exercise and physical activity on both physical and mental health, and found that ‘participants in randomized clinical trials of physical-activity interventions show better health outcomes, including better general and health-related quality of life, better functional capacity and better mood states.’
Elsewhere, a 2009 review of studies observed that regular aerobic exercise resulted in moderate increases in positive moods – particularly increasing pleasant feelings and leaving individuals feeling more energised.
Similar themes were highlighted in a 2011 study, which found a link between higher levels of interest, excitement, enthusiasm and alertness and higher levels of habitual physical activity.
In 2012, Research from Blumenthal, Smith, and Hoffman found that ‘increased aerobic exercise or strength training has been shown to reduce depressive symptoms significantly.’
While the physiological effects of exercise are incredibly valuable, studies have also shown that short walks can boost creative thinking. Even Nietzsche once observed that ‘All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking’. A recent study at the University of British Columbia found that regular aerobic exercise appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning.
Our bodies have evolved to be active, but we now often lead sedentary lifestyles – including in many cases sitting for much of the day.
While taking part in sport, fitness classes or going for a run can be great, simply walking more – or taking more light exercise – can be a hugely important step to take, and the benefits can be massive.
Many people try to do too much too soon, but researchers have found that even minimal increases of physical activity can make a real difference. One study found that mental health benefits were observed at a ‘minimal level of at least 20 minutes a week of any physical activity,’ for example.
Whether it’s giving your room a good clean, half an hour outside gardening, or getting off the bus a few stops earlier, the chances are you’ll be surprised at the impact that adding in a little extra physical activity into your day can have – even if you would not say you suffer from mental health issues.
How to get active at Oxford
College sport is a great way to stay active and meet new friends. Speak to your JCR or MCR Sports Rep for more information.
Oxford is also a beautiful, compact walkable city. There are also some great schemes for bike hire, so get some fresh air and save some money on your bus fares.
You can find more inspiration on free activities you can take part in from the NHS here.
Other steps can you take
While it’s clear that sport and physical activity can play a vital role in improving mental health and physical wellbeing, the University of Oxford also offers a comprehensive support system, which is open to all students.
If you are struggling, or simply wish to talk to someone about any of these issues, visit the welfare pages here, where you can find counselling, student support groups and much more.