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How physical activity can help boost mental health

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Mind's Hayley Jarvis blogs about the latest research on the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on mental health and how a balanced approach to exercise can help.

12th May 2022

by Hayley Jarvis
Head of physical activity, Mind

At Mind, we believe no-one should have to face a mental health problem alone. We’re here to fight for mental health. For support. For respect. For you.

This Mental Health Awareness Week we have launched our new spoken word films 'If this speaks to you, speak to us’.

The last two years have been challenging for our mental health and as we move to 'living with coronavirus' we know it will have a deep and lasting impact.

Before coronavirus we knew that mental health rates were increasing. Research from NHS Digital in 2020 found that one in six children and young people experience a mental health problem each year. Taking us back to 2017, that figure was in one in nine. A significant increase before we were all asked to stay home, pause work and studies, and limit our social contact.

Physical activity has an important role in supporting the nation to stay and live well.

At Mind, we believe sport and physical activity can build resilience, support and enable mental health recovery, and tackle mental health stigma as we have seen through large scale campaigns such as our 'On Your Side' partnership with the English Football League.

During the height of the lockdowns our government, through Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, encouraged us to be active outdoors to support our mental health.

Unlike many countries, who had to stay indoors, they recognised the key role physical activity can play in both prevention and management during times of distress and uncertainty.

An array of online content from the likes of 'The Body Coach' Joe Wicks and the We Are Undefeatable campaign helping us to move more in the home and outdoors, cemented the message that being active supports our mental health.

How much?

But how much physical activity is needed to help build up our resilience and support good mental health?

For many years mental health, and its relationship with physical activity, has been under-researched. And, while there are causal links with mental health outcomes, it hasn’t been straight-forward to establish the exact physiological processes that take place or how much activity is needed.

That said, there is a shift taking place and we are seeing more data coming through.

At Mind, we believe no-one should have to face a mental health problem alone. We’re here to fight for mental health. For support. For respect. For you.

Recent research from Professor Brendon Stubbs and ASICS has highlighted that the ‘sweet spot’ to feel the benefits of physical activity, including increased mood, could involve moving for just 15 minutes a day.

While we strive to reach the CMO guidelines for 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, knowing that a short walk at lunchtime can help increase our mood, or counter the stresses from work and daily life, is a game-changer.

It reinforces the messages of campaigns such as We Are Undefeatable, which is aimed at getting people with long-term health conditions to move in their own way.

It also helps for people just starting out in their journey and those of us who are time-poor due to work, home or caring commitments.

Fifteen minutes is a start and it’s good enough, giving tangible evidence to the rhetoric that something is better than nothing.

Exercise balance

We have worked with experts to explore what a healthy relationship with physical activity looks like and we're calling on all providers of physical activity to carefully consider their messaging around physical activity, and to focus on the mental health benefits such as how it makes you feel rather than the time, distance or speed - and we've developed new resources to help.

This is reinforced by the findings from Professor Brendon Stubbs, who said: “Taking time to rest is very important. This study shows that people’s wellbeing bounces back very quickly after a period of rest when people resume regular exercise again.”

Introducing the benefits of rest days and importance of varying types of exercise early in a person’s physical activity journey will also set the foundations for a healthy long-term relationship with physical activity, that supports both body and mind.

We are currently working with industry bodies such as ukactive to share our learning and ensure that policies and practices are informed by insight and experts.

The future is bright, the message is getting out there that physical activity has a role to play, but there is still much more to do.

We look forward to seeing more focus on physical activity in the forthcoming guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) on depression and supporting the cross-governmental plan for mental health - ensuring that the important role of physical activity is recognised.

We all have a role to play in creating sport and physical activity settings, and a society where people can thrive.

And our Mind physical activity team is here to support you to embed good mental health practices, including balanced messaging, training and support in your organisation.

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