A recently published 7-year prospective cohort study showed that people with a low physical fitness level had very high odds of developing depression.
This supports other clinical research demonstrating a strong correlation between physical and mental health.
This connection likely flows in both directions. Poor physical fitness can lead to mental health issues, and mental health issues can lead to poor physical health.
Mental Health Impacts Physical Fitness
There are a few mechanisms by which mental health can impact fitness.
For example, depression and anxiety can lead to sedentary behavior and poor self-care and nutrition. If you are living with depression, you probably don’t have much motivation and self-efficacy to exercise and make healthy choices.
And conversely, when you are feeling good, and emotionally well, it is easier to take care of yourself physically. You are more likely to want to exercise, and you have the energy and motivation to do it and stick with it.
Physical Activity Affects Mental Health
When you are not physically active, your body and brain miss out on some important benefits.
For one, regular exercise helps regulate important hormones and neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. These chemicals play an important role in mood and emotional regulation.
Exercise has been shown to improve mental health by reducing anxiety, improving sleep, and elevating self-esteem. It may also help people with depression by providing structure and routine, as well as increasing social interaction and opportunities for positive reinforcement.
A Positive Cycle of Health Improvement
This connection between physical fitness and mental health may be a double-edged sword.
If you are struggling with one area, you’ll likely experience negative consequences in the other. This can create a downward spiral: You’re too stressed or depressed to be physically active. This lack of activity makes your stress and depression worse, which then leads to even less activity, and so on.
But this also means you are afforded a great opportunity to uplift and enhance your health and well-being.
Improving your physical fitness—even with simple activities like walking, stretching, or a few pushups—can lead to a positive cycle of better mental health, more physical activity, and even further improvements in mental and physical health.
Or maybe you aren’t up for doing any fitness activities yet. But if you can make small improvements in your mental health—with the help of therapy, medication, or coping techniques—you may soon find it easier to be more physically active, leading to even better mental health.
A positive step in either direction can have a cascading effect of health improvements that can dramatically improve the quality of your life.