One of my favourite quotes is: “If exercise could be packaged in a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation.” - Dr. Robert Butler
And it’s true, we truly don’t have any medication that can offer protection against, and help manage, the number of health conditions that physical activity can. From heart disease and stroke to type 2 diabetes and even certain forms of cancer, it truly is a wonder “drug”. Physical activity has even been shown to increase the number, and diversity of, beneficial bacteria in the gut (1).
But the powerful effects of exercise do not just apply to our physical health - but also our mental health. Similarly, our mental health is very closely linked to our physical health so what we do for our body to stay physically healthy (such as staying active and eating a healthy diet) also supports our mental wellbeing.
Many people can relate to the positive effects of movement on their mood and stress levels with terms like “runners high” and while the mood-boosting effects may feel short-lived, regular physical activity does wonders for your longer-term mental health. We now have good quality evidence that demonstrates that people with higher physical activity levels are less likely to develop depression, stress and anxiety (2,3). Physical activity may also improve age-related changes to the brain and prevent cognitive decline, through a process called neurogenesis (4).
The good news is that you don’t need to spend hours in the gym or sign up to a marathon to reap the brain-boosting benefits of physical activity - as all forms of movement count. So while this may include structured forms of exercise (like lifting weights or running) it can also be everyday activities such as walking the dog, cycling to shops, gardening, playing with your kids.
To add to that, the mental health benefits can be gained at relatively low levels of physical activity with evidence to show that as little as 1 hour of physical activity per week can prevent 12% of future cases of depression (5). With that said, for both our physical and mental health, we want to be aiming for 150 minutes of movement across the week - but it’s reassuring to know that every little counts! Of course, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing - and excessive exercise can actually lead to worse mental health.
How physical activity impacts the mood, and risk of mental health disorders, is thought to be via a number of mechanisms, including; promoting changes to the brain (known as neuroplasticity), improving tolerance to stress and boosting self-efficiacy (the confidence in one’s ability to achieve specific goals)(6). Another way by which physical activity can influence mood, more recently uncovered, is via the gut.
Did you know that exercise can enhance the number and diversity of beneficial microbes in your gut? And a more diverse gut microbiota = better gut health = better overall health (including mental health!).
In adults, who don’t regularly exercise, a six-week programme of supervised workouts has been shown to increase the levels of the beneficial microbes and enhance microbial diversity (7). Unfortunately, if participants stopped exercising after the study ended their gut microbiota returned back to their previous baseline. So it’s best to choose a form of exercise that you enjoy, and can stick to!
Therapies focusing on the mind-body connection and stress reduction, like yoga and meditation, have also been found to improve digestion and reduce symptom severity in those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In fact, one study compared the effectiveness of a low-FODMAP diet versus yoga in a group of people with IBS and found that while there was no difference between the two groups, 80% of people reported an improvement in symptoms - highlighting the power of yoga for symptom management in IBS (8).
The gut-brain connection
How yoga in particular helps with IBS is thought to be due to the stress-reducing and breathwork component of this activity. These factors are linked to the gut brain axis; a two-way communication between the nervous system of the gut and the brain.
One way you may have experienced this link is if you ever felt a bit nauseous before a big interview or presentation, or felt “butterflies in your stomach” before something exciting, like a first date. This is just one example of how your gut and brain communicate, but this complex communication system is far more than a “gut feeling” and is essential for everyday functioning.
We can also use this connection to support both the management and treatment of mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, and certain gut disorders.
So looking after your gut can have positive effects on your mental health, and vice versa, and one way to look after both systems is through movement. The recommended amount of physical activity is 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week, but this can take the form of any form of movement so choose the type you enjoy and and can be consistent with.
Monda V, Villano I, Messina A, Valenzano A, Esposito T, Moscatelli F, Viggiano A, Cibelli G, Chieffi S, Monda M, Messina G. Exercise Modifies the Gut Microbiota with Positive Health Effects. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2017;2017:3831972. doi: 10.1155/2017/3831972. Epub 2017 Mar 5. PMID: 28357027; PMCID: PMC5357536.
Schuch FB, Vancampfort D, Firth J, Rosenbaum S, Ward PB, Silva ES, Hallgren M, Ponce De Leon A, Dunn AL, Deslandes AC, Fleck MP, Carvalho AF, Stubbs B. Physical Activity and Incident Depression: A Meta-Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies. Am J Psychiatry. 2018 Jul 1;175(7):631-648. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2018.17111194. Epub 2018 Apr 25. PMID: 2969079
Schuch FB, Stubbs B, Meyer J, Heissel A, Zech P, Vancampfort D, Rosenbaum S, Deenik J, Firth J, Ward PB, Carvalho AF, Hiles SA. Physical activity protects from incident anxiety: A meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Depress Anxiety. 2019 Sep;36(9):846-858. doi: 10.1002/da.22915. Epub 2019 Jun 17. PMID: 31209958.
Vecchio LM, Meng Y, Xhima K, Lipsman N, Hamani C, Aubert I. The Neuroprotective Effects of Exercise: Maintaining a Healthy Brain Throughout Aging. Brain Plast. 2018 Dec 12;4(1):17-52. doi: 10.3233/BPL-180069. PMID: 30564545; PMCID: PMC6296262.
Harvey SB, Øverland S, Hatch SL, Wessely S, Mykletun A, Hotopf M. Exercise and the Prevention of Depression: Results of the HUNT Cohort Study. Am J Psychiatry. 2018 Jan 1;175(1):28-36. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2017.16111223. Epub 2017 Oct 3. PMID: 28969440.
Smith PJ, Merwin RM. The Role of Exercise in Management of Mental Health Disorders: An Integrative Review. Annu Rev Med. 2021 Jan 27;72:45-62. doi: 10.1146/annurev-med-060619-022943. Epub 2020 Nov 30. PMID: 33256493; PMCID: PMC8020774.
Allen JM, Mailing LJ, Niemiro GM, Moore R, Cook MD, White BA, Holscher HD, Woods JA. (2018) Exercise Alters Gut Microbiota Composition and Function in Lean and Obese Humans. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2018 Apr;50(4):747-757.
Schumann D, Langhorst J, Dobos G, Cramer H. (2018) Randomised clinical trial: yoga vs a low-FODMAP diet in patients with irritable bowel syndrome. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2018 Jan;47(2):203-211.