There are a lot of reasons to love sports. They keep us fit, help us build resilience, and they’re fun.
As anyone who plays sports can attest: they make you feel good, too.
Here, we’re going to explore how sports help mental health. We’ve rounded up seven key benefits of sports for mental health, and why getting physically active has a major effect on our psychological wellbeing.
7 Benefits of Sports for Mental Health
Slowing down our cognitive decline and recovering memory function are possible, according to Harvard studies. One strategy we can adopt right now is regular, moderately intense exercise—like we get through sports.
Exercising routinely at this level has several influences over our mental health.
- Maintains healthy blood pressure
- Regulates healthy weight
- Improves energy
- Lifts mood
- Reduces stress and anxiety
All these factors demonstrate how sports help mental health: through improved mental health and cognitive function.
According to Dr. John Ratey—associate clinical professor of psychiatry—exercise also Stimulates the region of our brain involved in memory function. Exercise triggers the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which rewires damaged memory circuits.
30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, five days a week is all it takes to produce BDNF. There is no magic pill. Consistent exercise is the only way to access this benefit that links sports and mental health.
Another study has demonstrated that regular physical activity helps maintain critical thinking and good judgment as we age.
2. Improve mood
When we exercise, the body produces endorphins - a feel-good chemical that reduces pain, improves immunity, and helps us relax. The body’s natural mood boosters increase our feelings of satisfaction and make us more optimistic. Exercise also reduces the stress hormone—cortisol—in our body, giving us an overall improvement in mood and a happier outlook.
Any form of exercise—from team sports, to gym workouts, to walking and jogging—trigger our chemical reaction and demonstrate how exercise helps mental health.
But team sports have added social benefits, too.
Connecting with our friends and teammates and unwinding together improves quality of life and helps alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation.
3. Reduce stress
Exercise plays several functions in reducing our stress levels. From a chemical perspective, exercise reduces the amount of cortisol produced in our body.
From a physical perspective, exercise is also an excellent distraction. It is difficult to hold onto negative thoughts when our focus is on the challenge directly in front of us.
According to research released in 1999, exercise can also be an effective substitute for anti-depressant medications. The study determined that people who used aerobic exercise to combat clinical depression had the same success as those who used anti-depressants alone. It also showed that, after six months, participants who stuck with their exercise routine had a lower risk of relapse.
Sports psychologists believe that long-term exercise programs (3 months or longer) offer a strong defense against the symptoms of depression.
4. Healthy weight
Although weight loss is predominantly a side effect of regular sports and exercise, rather than a mental health benefit, the impact weight loss has on mental health can be huge.
A study at Kent State University looked at two groups of participants. One group were more than 50 pounds overweight, and had received gastric bypass surgery. The other were more than 50 pounds overweight, and had not received the surgery. After 12 weeks on the study, the surgery group tested at average to above average levels for memory function. The control group showed a slight decline in memory function over the same period.
Obesity is commonly linked to diabetes, high cholesterol, and hypertension. However, some scientists also acknowledge that obesity shows a connection to Alzheimer's disease.
Playing sports can lift our confidence and improve self-esteem in a number of ways.
As your skills and fitness improve through sport, your confidence grows. Your self-identity improves through your growth as an athlete, and physical activity is likely to improve how you see your appearance as well.
When we couple these benefits with the boost in mood and mental acuity, it’s no wonder our self-esteem grows.
Good sleep hygiene is paramount to good mental health. It improves our outlook on life, our moods, and energizes us. Regular, moderately intense exercise helps us fall asleep faster, deepens our sleep, and can assist those who suffer from insomnia. Even one 30 minute period of exercise delivers these benefits short-term.
Exercise also has an effect on the body’s melatonin production. Melatonin is responsible for controlling our body clock. In turn, this could explain how exercise is able to regulate sleep patterns and help us sleep deeper.
7. Improved relationships
People who get involved in team sports learn to consider the team, as opposed to the individual. This mindset can translate to the workplace and social situations, and help you to develop strong leadership skills and empathy. These qualities can improve relationships in the workplace and at home.
Protecting your Mental Health in Sports
Enjoying our sports goes hand in hand with the benefits we’ve just seen. Still, accidents and sports-related injuries can happen, and these can negatively impact our mental health. Protecting ourselves against sports injuries can safeguard us against dealing with the negative fallout of our hobbies.
Ways to protect your mental health in sports
- Warm up thoroughly before playing sports. Injury can occur when we push our bodies too hard, or too fast.
- Use proper equipment and kit for your sport—headgear, mouth-guard, eyewear, etc.
- Strive for balance in your social, work, family, and sporting life.
It’s important to take care of ourselves physically, but also to build psychological resilience before we need it.
Playing sports is great for us physically and socially. Sharing our leisure time with likeminded people helps us form bonds that can last a lifetime, whilst building our strength and skills.
Exploring the impact of sport and exercise on mental health gives us a new perspective, too. From boosting our mood to alleviating stress, to improving relationships and getting a better night’s sleep—learning how exercise affects mental health is a game changer.
If you’re not already enjoying all the perks of sports—there’s never been a better time to start.