The Mental Health Benefits of Increased Physical Activity

When thinking about the health benefits of increased regular physical activity that occurs when parks and trails are more accessible to the public, we tend to think of the physical health benefits: improved cardiovascular health, weight-loss, and the attendant reductions in chronic diseases. Taking a further look at the less visible spectrum of benefits, we can see a strong correlation between physical activity and increased mental well being .

Physical activity causes the natural release of endorphins throughout the body. One of the most positive effects resulting in the release of endorphins is the diminished perception of pain (with endorphins acting as analgesics). Endorphins trigger a positive feeling throughout the body including higher self esteem which many have come to know as the “runner’s high.” This is the instantaneous mental health benefit that occurs as a result of physical activity. Further , there is a body of literature that supports the connection between the treatment of anxiety and depression and outdoor physical activity.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, moderate aerobic or mixed aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercise can have significant mental health benefits, including improved mental acuity, better sleep and avoidance of depression. A recent study published in Nursing: Research and Reviews found that across the board, physical activity, even in the lightest forms, can generate mental health benefits. Paul Farmer, chief executive of mental health charity Mind, said the research is yet further evidence that even a short period of outdoor exercise can provide a low cost and drug-free therapy to help improve mental well-being. In a transatlantic partnership researchers from the University of Michigan and Edge Hill University in England found a correlation between more group nature walks and  “significantly lower depression.”

Physical activity can even be used as a preventive guard against depression. Citing two prior studies, the authors of the Nursing: Research and Reviews article on physical activity and mental health explain that, “physical activity undertaken during childhood is associated with a reduced likelihood of the development of depression during the adult years.” Another benefit toward helping in the treatment of depression comes from the social support that occurs through joining in exercise with friend and family. Engaging in physical activity with a group can help those suffering from depression by allowing them to you feel a sense of emotional comfort.

In the fight against the Alzheimer’s and dementia, there have been positive findings about the role that physical activity can play with regard to prevention of the diseases. According to a 2013 article from the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity, even modest engagement in physical activity can be “neuroprotective against cognitive decline in later life.” Further, physical activity can help lower the risk of cognitive decline and dementia in later life with risk reductions of up to 50%.9. The New York Times published findings from Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience that in people with an increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, exercise may help in keeping mental faculties  “robust,” helping to slow the progression of the disease. In the brains of physically active subjects, exercise appears to have reduced the deterioration of brain size and lowered signs of the harmful atrophy that occurs in the hippocampus as a result of the progression of the disease.

With such a body of research that positively supports the benefits that regular physical activity can have for mental health, there is a compelling case to be made for the development of urban trails and recreation facilities. As the journal Landscape and Urban Planning notes, “even in a city setting, the benefits of using green spaces are attainable with the use of urban rail trails.”  In a city setting such as the City of Kingston, the Kingston Greenline provides a great opportunity for city residents to engage in physical activity, and thus promotes the development and maintenance of both physical and mental well being.


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