We all know that exercise is good for mental health, but why? What factors involved in physical activity, sports and/or exercise are good for our minds? Researchers from the Trimbos Institute in the Netherlands believe that certain psychological factors that are linked to exercise – mainly body image and social interaction – play major roles in boosting mental health.

The authors, who reported their findings in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, had wanted to determine whether certain psychological factors associated with exercise played a role in boosting teenagers’ mental health. A recent study had shown that exercise helps people deal with anxiety and stress.

Karin Monshouwer wanted to look into two explanations for the association between exercise and mental health:

  • The self-image hypothesis – exercise improves one’s look by helping the person achieve an ideal body weight and better body structure, which improves self-image and leads to positive comments from peers
  • The social interaction hypothesis – that exercise involves social interactions, team spirit, and mutual support among team members, etc.

These two hypotheses are believed to be major contributors to mental health.

South Salem Falcons vs. Bedford
Better self-body image and social interaction – two factors that help protect mental health, thanks to sport

Monshouwer and team gathered and studied data on over 7,000 students aged 11 to 16; they were all Dutch. The teenagers filled in a questionnaire which assessed their mental health problems, physical activity habits, their perception of their body weight, and involvement in organized sports. They also collected information on the adolescents’ gender, socioeconomic status, age, whether they lived at home with their parents, and where they lived (urban, rural area, etc.).

The authors found that the teenagers who did the least exercise or none at all and perceived themselves as either too thin or too fat were the most likely to internalize their problems (and develop anxiety or depression) and externalize their problems (and become aggressive or be involved in substance abuse).

They also found that the participants who were regularly involved in organized sports were the least likely to have mental health problems.

The researchers confirmed both the self-image and social interaction hypotheses. They explained that a teenager’s body weight perception (too heavy, good, too thin) and membership of a sports club each partly accounted for the association between exercise and mental health. The association was still there after they had taken several factors into account, such as socioeconomic status.

The researchers emphasized that the body image and social interaction factors, known as the psychosocial factors, are only partly responsible for protecting mental health among sporty teenagers. Other factors, such as the physiological benefits of exercise are also important. A study in May 2012 by scientists from Vermont University showed that exercise triggers neurobiological changes in the brain itself.

Monshouwer said:

“We think that these findings are important for policymakers and anyone who works in healthcare or prevention. Our findings indicate that physical activity may be one effective tool for the prevention of mental health problems in adolescence.”

The authors say that future studies should follow participants over longer periods to determine whether these hypotheses, and possibly others factors, continue to explain why exercise is good for mental health.

Written by Christian Nordqvist