This article is part of a series in collaboration with ParticipACTION. Discover how "Everything gets better when you get active!"
When times are tough, it’s time to get moving. Regular physical activity significantly contributes to the maintenance of good mental health. Get 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity a week as recommended by Canada’s Physical Activity Guidelines, and you’ll feel happier, stress less, heal faster and even laugh more.
Here are five science-backed reasons why physical activity is key to the maintenance of good mental health.
1. It delivers feel-good hormones
Happiness is a state of mind but it’s also one that can result from a chemical response. Need a boost? Go for a brisk walk. Physical activity stimulates the release of endorphins and feel-good chemicals in your brain, like serotonin and dopamine.
Make physical activity a regular habit and you will benefit from more long-term happiness and contentment, too. Physically active people report greater satisfaction with their lives and more self-confidence.
It doesn’t matter what kind of activity you do, as long as it gets your heart rate up – ideally for a minimum of 20 minutes each day. Do it with a friend (even remotely or from a distance), outside, or in a group or class setting and you’ll enhance physical activity’s positive effects.
2. Happier people laugh more
Physical activity lifts your spirits, and a buoyant mood provides more opportunities for getting your giggle on, especially when you move with a pal or make it a group activity.
To increase the chance of a chuckle-friendly sweat session, try something new or challenge yourself to meet an activity benchmark. Train for a 5K, take a hot yoga class, hit the trail for an incline-heavy hike, or put on some rollerblades or ice skates for the first time in a while (with appropriate safety gear, of course). Novelty can add extra energy to physical activity because when it feels fun, you’ll do it more often.
3. It heals body and mind
Most of us will experience setbacks, as they can be part of the ups and downs of life. Physical activity can act as a powerful tool for getting you back into healthy shape after illness, injury or heartbreak.
Research suggests that light cardio activities, such as jogging, help you better regulate your emotions and even helps speed recovery from stressful events. Additionally, exercise can act as a powerful distraction that reduces the amount of time spent dwelling on negative thoughts or experiences.
Moderate-to-vigorous physical activity can also help you heal better. When you move more, you prime your immune system to respond better as well, making you a more efficient cold and flu fighter. Additionally, physical activity reduces the risk of multiple conditions and illnesses from heart disease, to stroke and type 2 diabetes. There’s even some evidence to suggest that it benefits those undergoing radiation treatment for breast cancer, reducing the energy-sapping effects of treatment and soothing its emotional toll.
4. You’ll breathe better
Physical activity strengthens the respiratory system, making your body better able to deliver oxygen to your bloodstream. But the way we breathe is a powerful influence on state of mind too, and mindful breathing practices (think yoga, Pilates, and meditation) have long been seen as a way to combat stress reactions like panic attacks.
How you breathe can significantly impact how you feel. Tight, short breaths that come in rapid succession can increase feelings of tension and stress, while deep mindful breaths that expand and contract the lungs can induce feelings of calm and stability.
If you need to decompress after a long day or are going through a period of high stress, consider taking a few minutes to focus on your breath. Slow and deep breathing can help reduce tension and the body’s stress response, bringing about a sense of greater calm. Try a few sun salutations before bedtime or simply sit or lay in a comfortable position, and take slow and deep mindful inhalations and exhalations to reap the restful rewards.
5. You’ll unwind better
External stressors like financial worries or family challenges can find a way into your body and mind, stimulating the production of ‘fight or flight’ hormones like adrenaline and cortisol (our body’s stress hormone), sapping your physical and mental reserves. While the solutions to some chronic stressors can be complex, you can change the way you respond to them through regular physical activity.
Moving your body regularly reduces tension and stress and has even been shown to reduce the risk of depression. A brisk walk, jog, swim, bike ride or dance party in your living room gets your heart rate up and stimulates the release of endorphins while at the same time reducing levels of adrenaline and cortisol. As a result, after moving your body you’ll feel both energized and calm.
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