After a year-long postponement, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics has finally started! The best athletes in the world are gathering in Japan to participate in 28 different sports in the hopes of bringing home a gold medal.

But you don’t need to be an elite athlete to reap the rewards of sport and exercise. If you’re feeling inspired to take up a sport or get more exercise, whatever your level of fitness or ability, it won’t just benefit you physically: it’ll improve your mental health too.

Benefits of exercise on mental health

You know that exercise is essential for physical health. But it has a wide range of mental health benefits too, including boosted mood, better sleep, less stress and help with anxiety and depression. Here are some of the things it can help with.

  • Less depression and anxiety. Physical activity boosts endorphin levels – the brain’s ‘feel good’ chemical. Even moderate exercise throughout the week can improve symptoms of both depression and anxiety.
  • Less stress. Physical activity affects how our bodies react to stress. As well as releasing endorphins, physical activity helps to relax muscles and relieve tension in the body.
  • Boosted mood. Improvements in mood are also caused by the increase in blood circulation to the brain that exercise generates.
  • Better sleep. Exercise helps regulate your circadian rhythm, or ‘body clock’ – and helps you sleep better. And better sleep means better mental health.
  • More energy. Increasing your heart rate several times a week will give you more energy, and therefore more resources to deal with what life throws at you.
  • Increased resilience. When faced with challenges in life, exercise can help us build resilience and cope in a healthy way.
  • Higher self-esteem. Whether it’s because of how it makes us look or feel, or because of the sense of achievement we get from seeing our progress and hitting new targets, exercise can make us feel good about ourselves.
  • Improved cognition. Cardiovascular exercise creates new brain cells, and improves brain performance. It also prevents cognitive decline and memory loss – and boosts creativity and mental energy.
  • Social support. We’re social beings, and friends are crucial for our mental health. Why not combine the benefits of exercise with the benefits of being social? Take up a team sport, join an exercise class or walking group – or go dancing with friends!

Benefits of exercise for mental health conditions

Exercise has lots of general mental health benefits – but it’s also beneficial for common mental health difficulties we may struggle with. So much so that your GP may prescribe exercise. Specific conditions that may be helped by exercise include:

  • Depression. If we’re depressed, we may be lethargic, withdraw from social events, lack motivation and lose interest in things we once enjoyed. Doing some exercise in these circumstances may seem like the very last thing you want to do. But the endorphin boost from exercise might be just what you need. And it doesn’t have to be much. Start small, for example with a short walk.
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). If you experience SAD in the winter months, not only can exercise help, if you do it outside – such as by going for a lunchtime walk – it can also provide a boost from the sunlight you’re missing.
  • Anxiety. The release of endorphins also helps with anxiety. But exercise can take your mind off your worries too. Try to add an element of mindfulness to your exercise, by focusing on your body, your breath, or the environment you’re in. This will help you shift your focus from your mind – and your thoughts – to your body.
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Regular exercise helps reduce the symptoms of ADHD. Exercise boosts the brain chemicals dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin – which all affect focus, concentration and attention.
  • PTSD and trauma. By focusing on your body and how it feels as you exercise, you can help your nervous system move out of the immobilisation stress response that characterises PTSD or trauma.

If you’re struggling with any of these issues, talking therapies can also be very helpful.

Activities to improve mental health

The NHS recommends that adults aged 19-64 do at least 150 minutes of moderate activity a week. That’s only 20 minutes a day. Research suggests that aerobic exercise – including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening and dancing – reduces anxiety and depression. So these are all great places to start!

Exercise is for everyone – whatever your age, fitness level or ability. To keep yourself motivated, it’s important to find something you enjoy. Here are some activities to consider:

  • Go for a walk. Did a daily walk help your mental health during lockdown? Daily walks aren’t just for pandemics – so why not maintain the habit? Getting out into nature is also proven to help with stress, anxiety and depression.
  • Do some gardening. From digging to weeding to mowing the lawn, gardening can be a good workout. You also get the satisfaction of being creative, and may experience a ‘flow’ state – a rewarding sense of total involvement in a task.
  • Get outdoors. Outdoor activities have added benefits. Hiking, sailing, mountain biking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting and skiing have also been shown to reduce the symptoms of PTSD.
  • Take up a team sport. According to a large study in The Lancet, team sports are best for improving mental health. As well as the social benefits, developing your skills in a sport can give you a real sense of achievement and mastery. If you have a disability, the Parasport website helps you find a sport based on your disability.
  • Keep on running. You don’t have to train for a marathon. Go for a light jog, or try the NHS Couch to 5K app – a running plan for beginners – to gradually build up your stamina.
  • Get on your bike. Regular cycling has been shown to reduce stress. It’s also great aerobic exercise, gets you outdoors – and can be a social activity too.
  • Go for a swim. Swimming is great exercise for the whole body. And it’s also a good way to relax and reduce anxiety. Many people also find being in or near water very soothing and therapeutic.
  • Take up yoga. Yoga is good for strength and flexibility – but also mindfulness – as is pilates, tai chi or Nordic walking.
  • Join a gym. Gym membership can give you structure and motivation, tailored advice from a personal trainer and classes you can join. If you have a disability, you can find an inclusive gym on the Activity Alliance website.

You might want to try a few different activities to decide what you enjoy and what fits best into your daily life. Whatever your level of ability and fitness, and wherever you are on your mental health journey, moving around more will help you keep a healthy mind in a healthy body.