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The Impact of Physical Activity and Sport on Mental Health


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Scientists have researched different aspects of physical exercise and sports and their impact on the health of a person. However, the impact of physical activity and sport on mental health has not been looked into extensively. This study reviews the literature on the effect of physical exercises and other sporting activities on mental health. The results indicate the presence of a positive link between participation in physical activities and the mental health of an individual. 3
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The Impact of Physical Activity and Sport on Mental Health
Tamadher abduaziz Muroj Muhsen
University of Baghdad Walden University MPH
Scientists have researched different aspects of physical exercise and sports and their impact on
the health of a person. However, the impact of physical activity and sport on mental health has
not been looked into extensively. This study reviews the literature on the effect of physical
exercises and other sporting activities on mental health. The results indicate the presence of a
positive link between participation in physical activities and the mental health of an individual.
The number of people suffering from mental health issues like anxiety, depression, stress,
and suicidal thoughts has increased considerably over the last few years. Reports from various
health organizations such as the CDC (2020) have shown that more than 5% of adults suffer
from a particular form of mental health condition every year. This indicates that over 43.8
million people experience a mental health disorder in a year globally. While some people suffer
from only one condition, others suffer from a range of mental conditions that have detrimental
implications on their health (Pascoe & Parker, 2019). The risk of mental health disorders is also
rife in children. Statistics show that over 10% of children aged between 5 and 16 years are
diagnosed with various forms of mental disorders annually (Harris, 2018).
Mental health conditions begin at an early age and may persist through adulthood. The
National Alliance on Mental Health (2020) reported that more than half of all people with mental
health conditions started experiencing these problems during their teenage. These people end up
dropping out of school due to the overwhelming nature of the symptoms. Mental health disorders
also contribute to the death of many people (Harris, 2018). These deaths are mostly associated
with suicidal thoughts.
It is unfortunate that even though standard treatment interventions are effective for
mental disorders, they do not produce the desired holistic results for all patients. Some people
may develop complications when given medications that are not suitable for their age and health
(Harris, 2018). Studies have shown that participation in physical exercise can potentially impact
a person's mental health (Jetzke & Mutz, 2019). Physical activities and sports can, thus, be
integrated into the treatment plan for persons at risk of developing mental health disorders.
Statement of the Problem
The increased prevalence of mental health disorders has necessitated the use of
potentially effective solutions to address this growing problem. Young people, as well as adults,
need to be provided with a treatment plan that holds the promise of improving their mental
status. Unfortunately, some of the solutions are inconsistent and potentially risky, thus, making
them unsuitable for younger people. Mostly, persons with mental health conditions are given
medications that may predispose them to adverse effects. Psychotherapy is also administered
since it is a potentially effective treatment technique for mental health disorders. However, not
all people have access to psychotherapists. Therefore, unavoidable circumstances force many
people to live without treatment for these conditions. People are not aware that simple physical
activities can improve their mental health. When individuals experience mental health
challenges, they only seek costly treatments without considering the potential benefits of
physical and sporting activities.
Research Question
The question that will guide this research is, "can the participation in physical and sporting
activities among people with mental disorders improve their health?”
Purpose Statement
The current research’s purpose is to conduct a synthesis of existing literature to find out the
impact of physical activity and sport on mental health.
Literature Search
The research articles used in the review of literature were obtained from electronic
databases. An electronic search was chosen, considering it helps to save time besides enabling
the researcher to generate a large number of articles with little effort. The databases utilized
include google scholar, Cochrane, and PubMed. These databases were preferred due to their
reliability as sources of peer-reviewed research articles addressing different health issues.
Furthermore, these databases contain up to date research articles relevant to the health problem
being addressed.
Search Terms
Specific search terms were applied to generate reliable literature materials that could help
to generate a valid answer to the research question. The search terms used were physical activity,
sporting activities, and the impact on mental health. The selection of these terms was based on
the fact that they addressed the main components of the research question. The search generated
over 35,000 articles with information related to the search terms.
Exclusion/Inclusion Criteria
The exclusion/inclusion criteria were applied to obtain the most relevant articles from
those generated in the search. The articles published in the English language were considered for
review while those published in other languages were excluded. Moreover, only full-text articles
less than five years old since the date of publishing were reviewed. The articles were thus
reduced to 21 from which the review articles were selected randomly.
Review of Literature
The central claim, concerning the impact of physical activities and sports on mental
health, is that the integration of these activities into the treatment and prevention plan for
psychological disorders can achieve better results with time than medications (Pascoe & Parker,
2019). Physical activities are presumed to have a profound positive impact on stress, depression,
anxiety, ADHD, and other psychological disorders. Individuals who engage in physical exercise
not only benefit from improved physical health, but also from improved memory, mood, better
sleep, and general psychological health. This indicates that physical activities have an
indisputable potential to enhance the physical and mental health of an individual. Evidence
supporting these claims can be obtained from different literature sources.
Al-Qahtani, Shaikh, and Shaikh (2018), for instance, noted that depression, which has
become a health burden, can be resolved with physical exercise and sporting activities. Mental
disorders, according to Al-Qahtani et al. (2018), are treated using a combination of medications
and psychotherapy. However, these interventions do not always yield the anticipated results. The
limitations of pharmacotherapy have, thus, necessitated the search for more potent and less risky
interventions. Research has led to the identification of exercise as one of the alternative therapies
for mental health disorders.
Liddle, Deane, and Vella (2017) noted that while only 65% of young people have access
to psychotherapy and other mental healthcare services, over 70% of this population has access to
physical and sporting activities. Distressed people should, therefore, be encouraged to take part
in simple physical activities to improve their mental health. The CDC (2020) noted that adults
with chronic mental conditions need to take part in physical activities more regularly as
compared to healthy people to enable them to cope with the distress associated with their health.
Below is a chart indicating the percentage of physical inactivity among adults with as well as
those without chronic behavioral and mental conditions. This chart reveals that individuals with
chronic mental conditions have a high level of inactivity than healthy people.
Figure 1. Percentage of physical inactivity among adults (CDC, 2020)
A study by Woods, Breslin, and Hassan (2017) on the impact of sports on the mental
health and wellbeing of prisoners revealed that physical activities enabled many people to deal
effectively with psychologically distressing issues. Sporting activities were shown to increase
social interactions between prisoners, consequently allowing them to forget their prison problems
temporarily. Physical activities are not only enjoyable but also tend to increase the confidence of
a person, thus making it easy to regain internal self-control (Woods et al., 2017). An individual’s
desire to exercise is an intrinsic force that triggers interaction with like-minded peers. In turn, it
promotes the creation of a social setting that supports social and mental wellbeing as well as a
sense of achievement.
Wood et al. (2007), on the other hand, conducted a study to determine the impact of
green spaces and recreational facilities on individuals' mental health. This study revealed that
individuals with access to recreational facilities that supported sporting activities had better
mental health than those from neighborhoods where these facilities were unavailable. The results
of this study indicate that sufficient provision of public green spaces within walking distances
plays a vital role in improving the mental health of the people.
Jetzke and Mutz (2019) noted that goals and motivations associated with sporting and
physical activities moderate the positive impact of these activities on the subjective wellbeing of
a person. Sporting activities comprise intrinsic motivational factors such as enjoyment,
relaxation, and sociality that positively enhance a person's mental health. People usually engage
in physical activities to achieve specific goals, such as reduce weight, compete, or spend social
time. Sporting activities, thus, generate a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction of an individual
(Jetzke & Mutz, 2019).
Jetzke and Mutz (2019) found out that individuals, who engaged in physical activities
had a higher level of satisfaction with life than those who spent a sedentary lifestyle. The other
psychological aspects that are enhanced by physical activity, as highlighted by Lubans et al.
(2016), include resilience, cognitive function, quality of life, self-connectedness, and improved
sleep, as highlighted in the chart below.
Figure 2. Effects of physical activity on mental health (Lubans et al., 2016)
Studies have shown that the integration of physical exercise into the treatment plan can
tackle psychological health conditions like medications. Importantly, physical activities do not
predispose individuals to the risk of side effects. Clough et al. (2016) argued that taking part in
physical activities for 15 minutes per day lowers the risk of depression and anxiety by 26%.
Maintaining a physical exercise schedule further reduces the risk of relapsing. Physical exercise
is a reliable intervention for psychological disorders since it promotes several positive changes in
the brain (Clough et al., 2016). It enhances a feeling of relaxation and wellbeing through the
release of endorphins. These activities also create a distraction from negative thoughts and other
activities that feed depression and anxiety.
In line with the use of physical activities in the treatment of depression and other mental
disorders, Malm, Jakobsson, and Isaksson (2019) pointed out that the use of these activities as
primary and secondary interventions have a profound impact on the prevention and alleviation of
depressive symptoms. Malm et al. (2019) supported the allegations by Clough et al. (2016) that
physical activities have an antidepressant effect in those presenting with neurological symptoms.
Importantly, training and exercise strengthen people's social skills and self-esteem, subsequently
improving their quality of life and coping mechanisms for depressive symptoms. The study by
Harris (2018) revealed that individuals who participate in physical exercise regularly report a
higher mental wellbeing score, as indicated in the chart below.
Figure 3. Mental health score (Harris, 2018)
The finding of the current research led to the recommendation that exercise and physical
activities should be considered as effective interventions for mental health conditions. The
beneficial role of physical exercise has been confirmed from the results of different research
studies. These benefits are evidenced by improvement in the quality of life, alleviation of mental
symptoms, and decreased risk of relapse. Therefore, all people experiencing psychological health
disorders such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, and hopelessness should be enrolled in
physical activity programs to resolve their problems (Lubans et al., 2016).
Target Audience
The target audience for this research is young people as well as adults, who are at risk of
developing mental health problems. These people can use this evidence to change their lifestyles,
thereby setting their mental status on the path of recovery and improved health. Individuals, who
have been diagnosed with mental health conditions, as well as those who suffer from mild forms
of these disorders, can integrate physical and sporting activities into their daily lives to improve
their mental health and prevent incidences of mental disorders. Mental health care practitioners
can also use this information. These professionals can use this evidence to guide the integration
of physical activities into the treatment plans for clients with mental health disorders.
Further Research
However, further research is needed to determine if all physical activities produce similar
results in reducing and alleviating mental symptoms. Individuals at risk of mental disorders are
encouraged to partake in various aerobic exercises such as swimming, walking, swimming,
jogging, and cycling. However, it is not clear if all these activities would generate the same
impact concerning the prevention of depressive symptoms and other mental conditions. Further,
studies need to be carried out to ascertain if all psychological conditions can be treated with
physical exercise interventions.
The increase in numbers of people suffering from mental health issues like anxiety,
depression, stress, and suicidal thoughts over the last few years, despite the application of
standard methods of care, has necessitated the implementation of physical exercise programs that
offer a more potent but less risky intervention. Standard treatment interventions are effective for
mental disorders, but they do not produce the desired holistic results for all patients. Evidence
has shown that physical activities have a profound positive impact on stress, depression, anxiety,
ADHD, and other psychological disorders. Individuals who engage in physical exercise benefit
from improved physical health and improved memory, mood, sleep, and general psychological
health. Sporting activities increase social interactions between people, subsequently enabling
them to forget the problems. These activities are not only enjoyable but also increase the
confidence of a person, thus making it easy to regain internal self-control. Physical activities
achieve the intended outcomes by promoting a feeling of relaxation and wellbeing through the
release of endorphins. These activities also create a distraction from negative thoughts and other
actions that feed depression and anxiety, thus improving the quality of life of an individual.
Al-Qahtani, A. M., Shaikh, M. A. K., & Shaikh, I. A. (2018). Exercise as a treatment modality
for depression: A narrative review. Alexandria Journal of Medicine, 54(4), 429-435.
CDC (2020). Adults need more physical activity.
Clough, P., Mackenzie, S. H., Mallabon, L., & Brymer, E. (2016). Adventurous physical activity
environments: a mainstream intervention for mental health. Sports Medicine, 46(7), 963-
Harris M. A. (2018). The relationship between physical inactivity and mental wellbeing:
Findings from a gamification-based community-wide physical activity intervention.
Health Psychology Open, 5(1), 1 8.
Jetzke, M., & Mutz, M. (2019). Sport for pleasure, fitness, medals, or slenderness? differential
effects of sports activities on well-being. Applied Research in Quality of Life, 1-16.
Liddle, S. K., Deane, F. P., & Vella, S. A. (2017). Addressing mental health through sport: a
review of sporting organizations' websites. Early Intervention in Psychiatry, 11(2), 93-
Lubans, D., Richards, J., Hillman, C., Faulkner, G., Beauchamp, M., Nilsson, M., ... & Biddle, S.
(2016). Physical activity for cognitive and mental health in youth: a systematic review of
mechanisms. Pediatrics, 138(3), e20161642.
Malm, C., Jakobsson, J., & Isaksson, A. (2019). Physical activity and sports-real health benefits:
a review with insight into the public health of Sweden. Sports (Basel, Switzerland), 7(5),
Pascoe, M. C., & Parker, A. G. (2019). Physical activity and exercise as universal depression
prevention in young people: A narrative review. Early Intervention in Psychiatry, 13(4),
The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) (2020). Mental health by the numbers.
Wood, L., Hooper, P., Foster, S., & Bull, F. (2017). Public green spaces and positive mental
healthinvestigating the relationship between access, quantity, and types of parks and
mental wellbeing. Health & Place, 48, 63-71.
Woods, D., Breslin, G., & Hassan, D. (2017). A systematic review of the impact of sport-based
interventions on the psychological wellbeing of people in prison. Mental Health and
Physical Activity, 12, 50-61.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
Based on a theoretical framework informed by Self-Determination Theory, this paper argues that sports activities’ impact on subjective well-being is moderated by the goals and motivations associated with the sport. Precisely, we hypothesize that intrinsic sport motivations like enjoyment, sociality, and relaxation, may enhance subjective well-being, whereas the well-being effect of sport is less pronounced or even negative when sport is functionalized for extrinsic goals, e.g. to control weight or to compete for medals. These hypotheses are tested with a large-scale sample of university students in Germany. The results indicate that students who practice sport regularly and habitually have a higher satisfaction with life compared to non-athletes. Moreover, the type of motivation matters: Sport motivations that refer to intrinsic goals and states (enjoyment, relaxation, sociality, fitness) come along with a surplus of satisfaction with life, whereas motivations aiming at extrinsic goals (competition, weight control, distraction) contribute to a lesser degree to satisfaction with life. Hence, playful forms of exercise and sport, conceived as an end in itself, have more potential to enhance well-being compared to competitive and weight-related sports.
Full-text available
Positive effects from sports are achieved primarily through physical activity, but secondary effects bring health benefits such as psychosocial and personal development and less alcohol consumption. Negative effects, such as the risk of failure, injuries, eating disorders, and burnout, are also apparent. Because physical activity is increasingly conducted in an organized manner, sport’s role in society has become increasingly important over the years, not only for the individual but also for public health. In this paper, we intend to describe sport’s physiological and psychosocial health benefits, stemming both from physical activity and from sport participation per se. This narrative review summarizes research and presents health-related data from Swedish authorities. It is discussed that our daily lives are becoming less physically active, while organized exercise and training increases. Average energy intake is increasing, creating an energy surplus, and thus, we are seeing an increasing number of people who are overweight, which is a strong contributor to health problems. Physical activity and exercise have significant positive effects in preventing or alleviating mental illness, including depressive symptoms and anxiety- or stress-related disease. In conclusion, sports can be evolving, if personal capacities, social situation, and biological and psychological maturation are taken into account. Evidence suggests a dose–response relationship such that being active, even to a modest level, is superior to being inactive or sedentary. Recommendations for healthy sports are summarized.
Full-text available
Depression is a major health burden associated with poor quality of life and impaired functioning. Depression is a leading cause of disability worldwide and is associated with profound economic costs. Depression is usually treated with antidepressant medications and psychological therapy or combination of both. However, there are lot of limitations associated with these therapies and as a result, a number of alternative or adjunctive therapies have been sought for. Exercise is one such option with a lot of substantial supportive research. The objective of the article was to review the beneficial effects of exercise in depression. An electronic search of literature from inception till 06/2017 highlighting the effects of exercise on depression and the possible mechanistic pathways involved was conducted using PubMed/Medline, Google scholar and Scopus and relevant articles were utilized for this review. The results of this review confirmed the beneficial role of exercise in depression as evidenced by the improvement in the outcomes and the various psychobiological parameters measured. Thus exercise can be considered as a treatment option for the management of depression.
Full-text available
Mental ill health accounts for 13 per cent of total global disease burden with predictions that depression alone will be the leading cause of disease burden globally by 2030. Poor mental health is consistently associated with deprivation, low income, unemployment, poor education, poorer physical health and increased health-risk behaviour. A plethora of research has examined the relationship between physical activity and mental wellbeing; however, the influence of community-wide gamification-based physical activity interventions on mental wellbeing, to the authors’ knowledge, is yet to be explored. In view of this paucity of attention, the current study examined the relationship between physical activity and mental wellbeing pre/post a community-wide, gamification-based intervention. The findings revealed that increases in mental wellbeing were significantly greater for the least active prior to the intervention, and a strong, positive correlation between increase in physical activity and increase in mental wellbeing was observed.
Aim The aim of this narrative summary was to examine the efficacy of physical activity and exercise as a universal prevention for depression in young people. Methods We conducted a search of the literature in the open‐access evidence database of controlled trials and systematic reviews in youth mental health, an initiative between Orygen, The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health and headspace, National Youth Mental Health Foundation. In April 2018, we searched for all papers published between 1980 and 2017 relating to “Depressive Disorder” under the “Universal Prevention” illness stage and classified as “Physical activity/Exercise” under the treatment/intervention classification. Systematic reviews, randomized control trials (RCTs) and controlled clinical trials were all included. Results A total of 11 papers were returned. Three of these studies were observational and eight studies were controlled trials. The reviewed studies indicate that exercise and physical activity might be an effective universal depression prevention intervention for young people. Three of the controlled studies had a passive control group or no control group and only one study had longer‐term follow‐up. No trial used a longitudinal design to determine if interventions prevent the onset of new cases of depression. Conclusions The studies reviewed in the current review demonstrate a bidirectional relationship between physical activity, exercise and adolescent mental health. The results of the current review suggest that physical activity and exercise programs designed to increase the level of activity in young people should be implemented to be attractive and achievable to young people that may have poor psychological health.
Associations between parks and mental health have typically been investigated in relation to the presence or absence of mental illness. This study uses a validated measure of positive mental health and data from RESIDential Environments (RESIDE) Project to investigate the association between the presence, amount and attributes of public green space in new greenfield neighbourhood developments and the mental health of local residents (n = 492). Both the overall number and total area of public green spaces were significantly associated with greater mental wellbeing, and findings support a dose-response relationship. Positive mental health was not only associated with parks with a nature focus, but also with green spaces characterised by recreational and sporting activity. The study demonstrates that adequate provision of public green space in local neighbourhoods and within walking distance is important for positive mental health.
Purpose The primary aim of this study was to review the impact of sport-based interventions (SBI) on the psychological well-being of people in prison. Secondary aims were to identify whether psychological theory of health behaviour change was included in the design and evaluation of interventions, and the inclusion of additional non-sporting components. Methods A textual narrative synthesis followed a systematic search of six databases, based on PRISMA guidelines, and conducted during April 2016. Inclusion criteria were people in prison, aged 15 or over, involved in a facilitated SBI. The outcome was impact on psychological well-being and all study designs were considered. Search results were reduced from 10,749 studies, to 14 (nine quantitative and five qualitative) after screening. Results Interventions lasted from six weeks to nine months, with nine being multi-component. A positive affect on psychological well-being or related variable was reported in twelve studies. However, there were inconsistencies in measurement, a lack of baseline data and limited follow-up. Health behaviour change theories were a notable omission across the interventions. Conclusions SBIs display a positive trend toward beneficial impact on psychological well-being within prisons. However, future studies should aim to address identified measurement inconsistencies and weak research design, and also include psychological change theory in their design. This will better enable practitioners and researchers alike to identify the key psychological mechanisms impacted and how, subsequently implementing SBIs with increased understanding and confidence in their contribution to prisoner psychological well-being.
Aim: Mental health is a major concern among adolescents. Most mental illnesses have their onset during this period, and around 14% of all young people aged 12 to 17 years experience a mental illness in a 12-month period. However, only 65% of these adolescents access health services to address their mental health problems. Approximately 70% of all Australian adolescents participate in sport, and this presents an opportunity for mental health promotion. Methods: This paper reviewed current approaches by sporting organizations to mental health promotion, prevention and early intervention by searching peak body websites, as well as the wider Internet. Results: Findings revealed many of the sport organizations reviewed acknowledged the importance of mental components of their sport to increase competitiveness, but few explicitly noted mental health problems or the potential of their sport to promote good mental health. Although some had participated in mental health promotion campaigns, there was no evaluation or reference to the evidence base for these campaigns. Conclusions: We describe a framework for integrating mental health promotion into sports organizations based on the MindMatters programme for schools.
Adventurous physical activity has traditionally been considered the pastime of a small minority of people with deviant personalities or characteristics that compel them to voluntarily take great risks purely for the sake of thrills and excitement. An unintended consequence of these traditional narratives is the relative absence of adventure activities in mainstream health and well-being discourses and in large-scale governmental health initiatives. However, recent research has demonstrated that even the most extreme adventurous physical activities are linked to enhanced psychological health and well-being outcomes. These benefits go beyond traditional 'character building' concepts and emphasize more positive frameworks that rely on the development of effective environmental design. Based on emerging research, this paper demonstrates why adventurous physical activity should be considered a mainstream intervention for positive mental health. Furthermore, the authors argue that understanding how to design environments that effectively encourage appropriate adventure should be considered a serious addition to mainstream health and well-being discourse.
Adults need more physical activity
CDC (2020). Adults need more physical activity.