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Why movement is essential for good mental health

Why movement is essential for good mental health Louise Pontin, The Mind Movement    Almost half of Australians will be affected by mental ill health throughout their lives....

Why movement is essential for good mental health

Why movement is essential for good mental health
Louise Pontin, The Mind Movement 


Almost half of Australians will be affected by mental ill health throughout their lives. This includes depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and more. Of those, some get to the point of suicide – did you know somebody tries to kill themselves in Australia every 10 minutes? It’s fair to say it’s an epidemic. While it paints a pretty confronting picture, the good news is there are a lot of options for improving mental health. As an Accredited Exercise Physiologist who specialises in mental health, my passion is spreading the word about how movement can improve your mental health.


Apart from the well-known effects of increasing the production of endorphins (feel-good chemicals), moving your body also increases the production of a little gem called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor – or BDNF. BDNF can best be described as a fertiliser for your brain cells. It helps baby brain cells to form, develop and grow new branches. New branches help the brain cells to join existing networks of other brain cells, and even create new ones! This is called ‘plasticity’ and affects the neural pathways involved in mood disorders. Increased neuronal growth has been related to the recovery of depression. The level of BDNF is increased with antidepressants, and also with exercise! Exercise has even been shown in several studies to be as effective as taking anti-depressant medication.


If your mental health challenges cause you to be hyper-alert (like anxiety or stress), exercise can help here, too. Anxiety and stress are controlled by the HPA axis, which consists of three organs (two in your brain and one above your kidneys) that communicate with each other via hormones. When you get stressed, the HPA axis leads to an increase of chemicals called epinephrine and cortisol, which up-regulate your body (doing things like increasing your heart rate and breathing rate, slowing your digestion) – preparing you to fight or fly. In a healthy body, the increase of these chemicals feeds back to the HPA system, causing it to decrease their production. In the case of chronic stress or anxiety though, this feedback system seems to malfunction, and you are left with chronic high levels of cortisol. Exercise can have a cortisol-lowering effect. Although higher intensity exercise does increase cortisol in the short term, during recovery it decreases. Low intensity exercise has been shown to decrease cortisol levels. If you suffer from anxiety or stress, lower intensity exercise like yoga or walking might be a good option.


Other theories suggest that exercise improves mood by simply distracting the exerciser from their unpleasant thoughts, or by giving them an example of an area of their life where they can set a goal, and achieve it. This is called self-efficacy – the belief that you have the necessary skills to do something, and the confidence you have that you can actually carry out the task and achieve the desired result.


Exercise can even help improve mood when other treatments have failed – a study conducted in Portugal looked at participants who had ongoing symptoms of depression walking for five days a week for 12 weeks, even though they’d been taking medication for at least nine months (some up to 15 months) – 26% of these participants showed NO symptoms of depression after the 12-week intervention!


So by now I imagine you’re well and truly convinced – exercise can definitely improve your mood (and the health of your brain) – but how do you get started?

An Australian review completed recently reported that supervised aerobic exercise, performed in either group or individual formats, three to four days per week, at low to moderate or self-selected intensity, for 30–40 minutes per session for at least nine weeks, is likely to provide positive benefits in the treatment of depression.


In plain language? If you want to try and use exercise to improve your mental health, you can:

-       choose any activity that gets your heart and lungs pumping,

-       work however hard feels good,

-       go for 30–40 minutes,

-       on three to four days per week,

-       for a couple of months.


You’re likely to have better results if you are doing some or all of your exercise ‘supervised’ – that is, working with an Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP), coach or personal trainer. Having said that, there are no hard and fast rules about what type of exercise is best to improve mood – I recommend anything that leaves you feeling happy, energised or calm. Think outside the box – try a dance class, martial art, rock climbing or kayaking!


If you have pre-existing injuries or illnesses that could be made worse with exercise (such as heart disease, knee pain, back pain or diabetes), it’s a good idea to work with an AEP or consult your treating health professional before beginning a new exercise routine.



Louise Pontin is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist committed to changing the way mental health challenges are thought of and managed in our society. She’s actively working to end the stigma and shame associated with experiencing mental health issues – which affect so many of us!

She started her business, The Mind Movement, to work with people who want to own their story and begin to practice self-compassion and kindness towards themselves while going through mental health challenges. Through her 1-1 coaching, workshops and retreats, she’s here to guide you to get more in touch with your inner-self – so it feels like making healthy choices is easy.

The Mind Movement is part of the Nourish Melbourne Community, and offers Nourish Melbourne Members $20 off initial consultation and 10% off follow ups for in person appointments, and 10% off online coaching packaged. Click here to find out more about our partnership with The Mind Movement and here for more info about becoming a Nourish Melbourne Member.