Feeling a bit low, fatigued, isolated and lacking motivation can be a bit of a barrier to physical activity. However, research shows though that movement can play an important role in shifting the dial towards better brain health. Recent findings from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare highlight how mental and physical health are intricately linked.

People who reported having a mental illness were much more likely to report having a chronic medical condition, and vice versa. Females were more likely than males to experience physical problems correlating to mental illness. For many people, physical movement is a key factor for enhanced mental wellbeing, enabling them to live with less stress, greater confidence and a kinder ageing process.

Physical movement triggers the release of chemicals that preserve brain function, improve focus and kickstart the repair of damaged nerve cells. These chemicals have the added benefit of an immediate feelgood factor, acting as a circuit-breaker for a low mood. Endorphins, which are often referred to as nature’s antidepressants, reduce pain perception and trigger a positive feeling, like that produced by morphine. Terms like “runners high” can be attributed to dopamine (which regulates mood and motivation, among other functions) and serotonin (affecting mood, sleep, and sexual desire), which flood the body during activity. Both are depleted in people with depression; exercise is a natural way of stimulating their release.

Being physically active has a balancing impact on the hormones cortisol (the stress responder) and insulin (a metabolism and blood glucose regulator). Scientists have recently discovered insulin resistance increases a person’s risk of major depressive disorder. Exercise can help reduce or eliminate this hormonal condition, which is believed to affect as many as one in three Australians and often precedes a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes.

In women, fluctuating levels of oestrogen and progesterone create side effects and challenges at different life stages. Exercise can help in adapting to these changes and potential consequences including weight gain, osteoporosis (bone loss) and menopausal symptoms such as insomnia, hot flashes and depression. One study comparing Australian women across various life stages found that exercisers were more positive and had better memory than non-exercisers. Another study on the effects of aerobic exercise concluded that it may assist in the alleviation of some menopausal symptoms.

Consider these tips when moving for a healthier mind:
• Start small and at your own pace – Enjoyable movement is sustainable movement!
• Socialise your exercise – Connecting with others is a rewarding way to move more.
• Get out and about – Fresh air and a change of scene cost nothing but bring a raft of payoffs for mind and body.
• Celebrate feeling great – Focus on how you feel over how you look.