We are constantly learning more about just how strong the connection between the brain and the body is, and although we tend to think of exercise as leading to improved mental health, it appears the reverse is also true. Finnish researchers have found that people whose mental well-being is high at age 42 are more physically active when they hit their 50s compared to those whose mental well-being is lower in their 40s.
The study, which was published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, looked at men and women at ages 42 and 50 to explore this connection using data from the Longitudinal Study of Personality and Social Development.
To evaluate mental well-being, they used three dimensions: psychological, social and emotional well-being. Psychological well-being is based on experiences in personal growth and the meaning of life, and social well-being refers to people’s relationships with others and the community at large. Emotional well-being, meanwhile, relates to people’s overall satisfaction with their lives and tendency toward positive feelings.
The researchers from the University of Jyvaskyla said they were surprised to learn that people’s leisure time physical activity did not seem to predict later mental well-being or their subjective health. However, mental well-being did predict their physical activity, underscoring the importance of mental well-being in maintaining physically active lifestyles as people age.
Perhaps even more interesting was the link they found between different physical activities and specific aspects of well-being.
For example, they discovered that walking was related to emotional well-being. Rambling in nature was linked to social well-being, while endurance training was related to subjective health in men and women alike. For men only, rambling in nature was also linked to subjective health and emotional well-being.
Other studies have illustrated the link between physical activity and mental well-being. For example, a study from New Zealand showed that people who meet the global recommendation of getting a minimum of 2.5 hours of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week have a 51 percent greater likelihood of having a healthy mental well-being; that figure jumps to 65 percent in those who do this type of activity for 4.5 hours per week. Meanwhile, people who increased their activity from two to three days per week noted a 24 percent jump in their chances of having high mental well-being.
Exercise can also help stave off depression, with a review of international literature showing that physical activity can reduce people’s chances of experiencing depression in a way that rises with age. For example, it can reduce children’s chances of experiencing depression by 10 percent, while the reduction is 22 percent in adults.
Physical activity causes chemical changes in the brain that have a positive impact on mood, and it releases endorphins that make you feel good and give you energy. It promotes neural growth while reducing inflammation, and it can also give people a higher sense of self-esteem and self-control. Those who exercise regularly report having more energy during the day, sleeping better at night, feeling more positive about themselves, and even having sharper memories than those who don’t exercise.
Getting the benefits is easier than you think
The relationship between a healthy mind and a healthy body is a two-way street, and work in one area can have a profound impact on the other. If you’d like to get the physical and mental health improvements associated with exercise, you’ll be happy to learn that even moderate amounts are enough to make a noticeable difference.
Experts say that moderate exercise for 30 minutes five times per week is all it takes to give you the physical and mental health benefits of exercise. This can be broken down into smaller sessions, like three 10-minute sessions, if necessary. It’s okay if you can’t hit those numbers; any amount of movement is better than doing nothing, so listen to your body and work toward increasing your physical activity with time.