The impact of Physical Exercise on Mental Health and Learning

Renee Lane

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The first step out the door is often the hardest. Do not get me wrong, I love exercising. I run or walk almost every day. However, when you have had a long day at work, or if it’s cold and wet, sometimes the most difficult thing is to find the motivation to take that first step. Nevertheless, the feeling you get once you finish that run, walk, or gym session, is totally worth it. You don’t need the science to tell you how good you feel at the end: energised, refreshed, happy, relaxed, satisfied, invigorated, and content. It makes that first step so worth it.

The link between exercise and mental health is strong. Happiness researcher Sonja Lyubromirsky (2007), notes that ‘exercise may well be the most effective instant happiness booster of all activities’. It is something we all innately know; however, many of us struggle to strike that balance. Physical activity has recently been identified as the most important factor in reaching optimal functioning (Mann & Narula, 2017). Tal Ben-Shahar also suggests that not exercising, is like taking depressants. So, let’s explore how exercise not only enhances our overall health and wellbeing, but how it can positively influence our ability to learn – even as adults!

The science conclusively shows that exercise doesn’t merely lead to a better body, but also a better brain. Dr. John Ratey, author of Spark, refers to exercise as ‘Miracle-Gro for the Brain’. When we exercise, our bodies generate a large amount of the protein Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF). BDNF nourishes brain cell growth, just like fertilizer does for plants - so it’s essentially brain fertilizer! BDNF has been shown to heighten our learning and our creativity.

There are many more benefits of exercise, for both our body and mind, including:

  • Increased memory, mood, attention and sleep patterns
  • Increased neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons – a nerve cell, and new neural pathways)
  • Increased myelination (the sheath surrounding the neural pathways, increasing the signal strength of nerves)
  • Increased hormone levels, including dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin (feel good chemicals, and one of the reasons why we feel so good when we walk back in the door post exercise session)
  • Protecting and prolonging against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia

I’m sure I can hear you asking, how much exercise do I really need to do to get all of these benefits?

As adults, according to the Heart Foundation and Dr. John Ratey, a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week is required. That’s only 21 minutes per day! And, remember, exercise doesn’t have to cost you a cent and it doesn’t need to be too strenuous. Walking is free, and a brisk walk is classified as moderate intensity exercise.

Strategies and tips to enhance regular exercise:

1. Find a friend. It makes us accountable and that first step out the door so much easier.

2. Make it a part of your routine. Set aside certain times of the day. Some research suggests that exercising in the morning gives us the most ‘bang for our buck’. However, if you are not a morning person, any time of the day is perfect! You are more likely to stick with something if it is scheduled in to a routine.

3. Find a new location to exercise. Try a walk along the beach, or a bushwalk.

4. Choose activities you will enjoy. You are more likely to keep doing them.

5. Variety is the spice of life. Vary the type of activity you do, so that you don’t get bored.

6. Set small, realistic goals. Don’t go straight to “I’m going to run a marathon!” Maybe a 10-minute walk around the block is the perfect starting point.

7. Be kind to yourself. If you only get in 10 out of your 21 minutes of walking per day, some exercise is better than none. So, always choose some!

One of my favourite sayings is “healthy body, healthy mind”. Many of us have heard this phrase used in various sporting and educational contexts, however, you may not have realised that this small sentence, which captures the very essence of this blog, was written in Latin (Mens Sana in Corpore Sano) by a Roman poet in second century AD. As humans we know this, we have known it since the dawn of time, the question is – how much do we subscribe to it?

In the same way we take a daily vitamin tablet or a Panadol for a headache, putting on a pair of shoes and taking that first step out the door should be something that we prescribe ourselves as part of our everyday routine.

So, let’s take that first step, prescribe yourself some exercise for the good of your mind and body and make it a non-negotiable in your daily routine. I will see you out there!

Resources & References:

Lyubromirsky, S. (2007). The How of Happiness. A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want. Penguin Putnam Inc.

Mann, A. and Narula, B., 2017. Positive Psychology in Sports: An Overview. International Journal of Social Science, 6 (2), 153-158.

Ratey, J. (2012). Spark. The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Little Brown and Company.

Renee Lane

Renee Lane is a Trainer and Content Developer with the Institute of Positive Education. She has worked in education for the last 18 years with a focus on student management and wellbeing, health, physical education and outdoor education. Most recently, she spent 8 years as the Lead Education Officer at BioLAB: The Victoria Bioscience Education Centre.