Move that brain: Mental health benefits of sports

I’m sure you heard a thousand times when you were little your mum’s famous phrase: “go outside, move a bit!” Well, even though that cliché was annoying as a child—especially if it felt like the North Pole outside—we all know she was right.

Any kind of sports, even as little as a 15 minute walk every day, can have lots of benefits such as high energy level and decreasing the probability of developing chronic diseases such as obesity or heart conditions.

Aside from the health benefits of sports, our brain and mental health are also bettered. Sarah (fake name) from the University of Kent’s Swimming club says: “I love to do Sports. It helps me relax and de-stress. The feeling afterwards is incredible too. When I’m in the water I’m just myself; no problems, no worrying. It makes me feel so good about myself”.

There has been much research linking exercise with better mental health in the last years. The Royal College of Psychiatrists recognises that some treatments for several mental health conditions should even involve exercising as a prescription.

Physical activity has many benefits, especially when starting from a young age. A study published in Canada in the Journal of Adolescent Health shows that students in grades 8 until 12 who play sports have lower amounts of stress and improved mental health when being young adults.

If you did not start when you were young, don’t worry, it’s never too late to benefit your brain. Here are some of them:

1. Improves your mood

Even the smallest kind of physical activity is a trigger for the release of chemicals known as endorphins, that make you feel happier and more relaxed. The best part is that you don’t need the most intense activity; it’s all about moving for a bit while having a good time.

Being part of a team is especially good in this case, as it provides the opportunity to engage in gratifying challenges. The social benefit of it will also help in making you more satisfied, therefore, happier as well.

2. Improves your concentration

Regular sports help in keeping your mental skills including critical thinking and concentration abilities on point.What’s more, it has been shown that physical activity helps preventing some neurological and cognitive disorders like, for example, Alzheimer or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

3. Reduces stress and feelings of depression

Everybody that has done sports can say that it’s a good distraction from other things like studying or work. When exercising you focus on your feet, on your breathing; the least thing that (usually) comes to mind is when your next essay is due. Endorphins play a role here as well, acting as a mood enhancer, making you feel less levels of stress and more optimistic.

4. Improves sleep quality and habits

This works in a really simple way; when you do sports you get tired and when you’re tired, you fall asleep quicker. By making you get tired, physical activity improves the quality of your sleep.

On the other hand, it can have the opposite effect if done too close to bedtime in the evening. You don’t want to be completely awake and energized right before going to hit the hay. Just organize yourself for doing it in the morning or afternoon, before or after lectures.

5. Makes you maintain a healthy weight

According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sports including cycling and running, is recommended as a healthy way for maintaining weight.

Although this could be seen solely as a physical benefit, this helps with self-image and, therefore, with the next benefit.

6. Boosts self-confidence

Being part of a team, for example, and feeling that you contribute all together as a group towards the same goal, makes you feel like you’re doing something important. Even if the goal is as simple as having fun in a friendly game, this can increase your feelings of confidence and self-worth.

7. Provides means for socialization, especially if you are part of a team

Sports is quite an interactive activity, being the perfect opportunity for socialising and improving existing bonds or even creating new ones. Socialising then has many benefits, including a more positive mood. It has been shown that participating in a team sport can even improve academic performance.

These are just a few. Obviously, this is just a good recommendation for taking care of your mental health. Maybe you don’t fancy the commitment of being part of a sports team or feel you are just not good in sports. That’s fine. Just try and get some activity into your life by simply changing some small habits, such as walking to lectures instead of getting the bus, not taking the lift but walking up the stairs in the library.

These might seem unimportant but will hugely impact in your day-to-day mood and, therefore, your mental health.

You do like sports but don’t know how to get started? Joining a sports society is the best way I’ve found since joining University, even if you don’t want something as serious as being part of a team. Feel it’s too late? Well, I have some good news: it’s never too late. Today, tomorrow, next term – any day is a good day to start doing exercise while you have fun, socialise with new people and benefit from the advantages of sports.

So, if you are not doing any sports, what are you waiting for? It’s a wonderful way to keep your mental health in check.