• Jon Sharpe

Fitness for ridiculously good mental health

Being sat at that desk chair is damaging your mental health.

Here’s what you can do about it.

The human brain evolved in an era of movement. One study estimates that we would need to add a 19km walk each day to reach a comparable physical activity level to our Paleolithic Stone Age ancestors (1).

Perhaps it’s not surprising then that our brain tends to suffer given the sedentary nature of today’s lifestyles. Just as animals in captivity become distressed, the human, too, doesn’t do so well at his desk chair.

Our new found sedentary lifestyles are damaging our mental health.

The encouraging news is that getting active can do an awful lot to help.

Exercise is a wonder drug, without the side effects. It is an incredibly powerful tool to achieve good mental health.

Exercise has been shown to have powerful antidepressant (2,3,4) and anti-anxiety effects (5), and generally drives improvements in wellbeing. It can be as effective as medication and psychotherapy for our mental health (3,6), if not more so (7).

Why is it so effective?

Well, whilst the pathways are not perfectly understood, there are many explanations.

One significant effect comes through the levels of neurotransmitters and neurotrophins in the brain. Exercise opens the door to your very own pharmacy.

Serotonin, dopamine, endocannabinoids and brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) are just some examples of the chemicals that are boosted by exercise. Taken together this is an impressive combination supporting your mood, cognition, drive, motivation, along with neuroplasticity of the brain. Not bad at all.

Next up we have the painkiller effect. Exercise causes the body to release endorphins. Though I'm sure you already knew that, what you may not have known is what they actually do. Endorphins diminish the perception of pain. They literally act like morphine. The word endorphine itself comes from endogenous and morphine. That’s internally created morphine; with the added benefit that it has none of the harmful, addictive properties of the opioid itself.

The ideal type of exercise is the type you enjoy. None of the benefits are going to take effect if you don’t adhere to an exercise program, so adherence is absolutely critical.

Away from the chemistry lab, in my view, one of the most important effects is via the idea of a keystone habit. This term was coined by Charles Duhigg in his book “The Power of Habit”. Basically a keystone habit is one that people introduce into their routines that unintentionally carries over into other aspects of their lives. Keystone habits can have transformational effects. Here's an example. Have you ever exercised early one morning and then found it much easier to turn down a sugary treat for breakfast? That's how a keystone habit works, the act of doing the habit has helped you to start another positive habit, i.e. choosing a more nutritious breakfast.

Exercise, too, can have a powerful impact on the way we view ourselves. Given that self-esteem is a critical component in our mental health outcomes, factors that affect it are not to be ignored. When we set exercise goals and go out and meet those we are improving the way we view ourselves. I’m not talking about in an egotistical or superficial way, but in the sense that we know what we are doing is good for our body and mind and our respect for ourselves improves accordingly.

Lastly we have sleep. I’m a big fan of it. And if you’ve read any of the more recent studies into sleep, I’m sure you are too. However, poor mental health can negatively affect our sleep. Not only does it turn us into insomniacs, but it also wrecks the quality of the sleep that we do get. Here’s where exercise steps in again. It helps us to fall asleep more easily, whilst also improving the quality of our sleep. (Note: Vigorous exercise right before bed should be avoided if possible as it gets the body a little too fired up to want to sleep.)

What is the most effective type of exercise for mental health?

Studies have suggested that moderate to vigorous exercise (i.e. you’re getting a good sweat on), 3-5 times a week for 45 minutes a session is ideal for mental health benefits (8,9). The effect of aerobic activity has been studied in greater depth, but resistance training has also been shown to have significant benefits (10).

Personally, I’d say the ideal type of exercise is the type you enjoy. None of the above benefits are going to take effect if you don’t adhere to an exercise program, so adherence is absolutely critical. The idea is not to be fit to the extreme. We are not talking about ultramarathons and CrossFit Games. The focus is on optimal health, and that includes mental wellbeing.

Exercise is a wonder drug, without the side effects. It is an incredibly powerful tool to achieve good mental health.

My advice is to move like your life depends on it. Because it does.

If you’re interested in learning about how exercise and nutrition can be used to manage your mental health, you can download my 6 fitness strategies to supercharge your mental health for free here.

Or if you want to take the next step and get started with a well designed, personalised coaching program that puts your physical and mental health front and centre, click here to apply for a space on the program, and we’ll get you sorted.


1. Hayes, M., Chustek, M., Heshka, S. et al. Low physical activity levels of modern Homo sapiens among free-ranging mammals. Int J Obes 29, 151–156 (2005) https://www.nature.com/articles/0802842

2. Blumenthal JA, Smith PJ, Hoffman BM. Is Exercise a Viable Treatment for Depression?. ACSMs Health Fit J. 2012;16(4):14–21 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3674785/

3. Hoffman BM, Babyak MA, Craighead WE, et al. Exercise and pharmacotherapy in patients with major depression: one-year follow-up of the SMILE study. Psychosom Med. 2011;73(2):127–133 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21148807

4. Schuch FB Vancampfort D Firth J et al. Physical activity and incident depression: a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Am J Psychiatry. 2018; 175: 631-648 https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.ajp.2018.17111194#

5. Anderson E, Shivakumar G. Effects of exercise and physical activity on anxiety. Front Psychiatry. 2013;4:27. Published 2013 Apr 23. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00027 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3632802/

6. Blumenthal JA, Babyak MA, Moore KA, et al. Effects of Exercise Training on Older Patients With Major Depression. Arch Intern Med. 1999;159(19):2349–2356 https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/485159

7. Babyak M1, Blumenthal JA, Herman S, et al. Exercise Treatment for Major Depression: Maintenance of Therapeutic Benefit at 10 Months. Psychosom Med. 2000 Sep-Oct;62(5):633-8 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11020092

8. Dunn AL, Trivedi MH, Kampert JB, Clark CG, Chambliss HO. Exercise treatment for depression: efficacy and dose response. Am J Prev Med. 2005;28(1):1–8 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0749379704002417

9. Chekroud SR Gueorguieva R Zheutlin AB et al. Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1·2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: a cross-sectional study. Lancet Psychiatry. 2018; 5: 736-746 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S221503661830227X

10. Gordon BR, McDowell CP, Hallgren M, et al. Association of Efficacy of Resistance Exercise Training With Depressive Symptoms: Meta-analysis and Meta-regression Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. JAMA Psychiatry. 2018 Jun 1;75(6):566-576 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29800984