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Exercise has been shown to help some people who suffer from depression or anxiety to relieve their symptoms, and now a new study claims physical activity can increase positive mental health conditions, such as happiness.

On 22 April, thousands of people will pound the streets for 26 miles in the London Marathon. But you don’t need to be running marathons to feel the positive effect of exercise on your mental health.

Reduces depression and anxiety

The most recent research on the link between exercise and depression was a study from Australia which found that in some cases, in people who exercise regularly, stopping exercising led to increases in symptoms of depression after just three days.

Also in Australia, just before the start of the Commonwealth Games there, experts said that doctors should be prescribing exercise as medicine due to the considerable amount of evidence showing that exercise can improve mental health. They advised that doctors should encourage their patients to undertake at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a week.

Positive mental health

Researchers in the US have now looked at whether exercise increases positive mental health in the same way that it has been shown to reduce negative mental health.

Their study involved looking at health information from thousands of people across several countries. They found that there was a positive relationship between physical activity and happiness.

Hours per week

An interesting finding from the research was that even a small amount of physical activity can make a difference to people’s positive mental health.

Some of the studies looked at found that happiness levels were the same whether people exercised for between 2.5 and 5 hours a week, and those who exercised for more than 5 hours a week.

Odds of happiness

On analysing the results of various studies, the research found that the odds of being happy compared to inactive people were 29% higher for people who are sufficiently active, and a whopping 52% higher for people who are very active.

The link between exercise and happiness was also investigated specifically in young people. The studies found that young people who did physical activity once a week had 1.4 times the odds of being happy compared to those who didn’t do any exercise.

Good mood

Another study, again from the US, found that as little as 20 minutes of exercise can improve our mood for up to 12 hours. The study analysed a group of men and women aged between 18 and 25. They completed a mood questionnaire before, immediately after, and at 1, 2, 4, 8, 12 and 24 hours following aerobic exercise.

There was a significant increase in mood for each time point up to 12 hours following exercise.

Memory skills

And it’s not only mood and happiness that exercise helps. There is evidence that regular exercise can protect the memory and improve thinking skills. A study found that daily 20-minute sessions of interval training over six weeks improved performance in memory tasks.

The findings could be particularly important for older people, as we see memory decline as we age. Also, for people with dementia, exercise can help improve wellbeing and slow down mental decline, according to the Alzheimer’s Society. They also point out that exercise can improve self-esteem and mood, which can encourage more social engagement, which again contributes to wellbeing.

Happiness levels

So even if you’re not running a marathon this weekend, just 20 minutes of gentle jogging, cycling, yoga or swimming could improve your mood and memory, and put a smile on your face.

If you would like to speak to our Physiothereapy team about the benefits of running and other forms of exercise please call them on 01372 221 402.