Physical Activity and Mental Health

The link between mental health and physical activity is something that I love to see growing interest and research in. This is particularly…

Physical Activity and Mental Health

The link between mental health and physical activity is something that I love to see growing interest and research in. This is particularly relevant from my observations of the collateral consequences regarding pandemic precautions — that is; people are being told to avoid contact with other people at all costs (at the time of original writing), stay inside, avoid the sun, and to continue eating highly processed artificial foods and “not worry about the quarantine 15.”

At any rate, the point is that mental health, physical health, and physical fitness, and ecology are all related (i.e Sacred Cow, Kiss the Ground). This week an article came across my news feed titled “ Physical activity as a mediator of anxiety and cognitive functioning in Parkinson’s disease”( 1).


  • Physical inactivity is common in Parkinson’s disease
  • Anxiety is associated with cognitive impairment in Parkinson’s disease
  • Physical inactivity mediates the anxiety-cognitive impairment association
  • Inactivity is a pathway by which anxiety leads to cognitive impairment

Let’s take a look at that. Parkinson’s (a degenerative brain disease) patients are likely physically inactive. They are also likely to exhibit symptoms of anxiety in correlation with cognitive impairment (more cognitive impairment corresponding with more anxiety). Physical activity, then, mediates (or lessens) the anxiety-cognitive impairment association. That is, the more physically active a Parkinson’s patient is, the less likely their declining cognitiion is to also spur an increase in anxiety. Alternatively, inactivity facilitaties anxiety’s perpetuation of cognitive decline. In other words, literally sitting around ruminating and worrying (a familiar message displayed on virtually all news outlets) literally decays our cognitive ability!

Let’s look at a couple other papers as well.

The relationship between community participation and physical activity among individuals with serious mental illness2Amount of community participation was inversely associated with the % of time in sedentary activity and positively associated with the % of time in moderate to vigorous (physical activity). Those with at or more than 7500 steps and 10,000 steps reported significantly more days of community participation.This study highlights the contribution of everyday activities for increased physical activity and reduced time spent in sedentary activity. Practitioners should consider recommendations for engagement in the community to increase opportunities for walking.

There are two major conclusions that can be drawn here and are often being overlooked in the COVID-era. The first is that “community participation” — you know, being engaged and active with real living human beings — improves mental health outcomes (something we can certainly dive into in future news posts). Second, physical activity improves mental health outcomes as well — what was that part about ignoring the Quarantine 15?


Individuals who exercised had 1·49 (43·2%) fewer days of poor mental health in the past month than individuals who did not exercise but were otherwise matched for several physical and sociodemographic characteristics… In a large US sample, physical exercise was significantly and meaningfully associated with self-reported mental health burden in the past month. More exercise was not always better. Differences as a function of exercise were large relative to other demographic variables such as education and income. Specific types, durations, and frequencies of exercise might be more effective clinical targets than others for reducing mental health burden, and merit interventional study.3

There is clearly some nuance here as exercise is a stressor. So, accumulating irrecoverable volume and / or intensity will cause an accumulation, rather than release, of stress. It is noted in that article that “all exercise types were associate with a lower mental health burden than not exercising.” So, even if one type or style of exercising is more stressful or less stress releasing than another, it still yields a more positive outcome than not exercising at all.

One other thing that’s interesting to consider is the environmental context of the exercise. “ Does context moderate physical activity’s relations with depression?( 4)” This study is particularly interesting because it suggests that physical activity during recreation time significantly lowers the risk of depression while, the effect of physical activity at work is much lower.

The context of physical activity moderates relations between physical activity and depression. These findings raise the possibility that individuals who engage in physical activity only at work or for transportation, but not for recreation, may not receive significant mood benefits from physical activity.

That brings even more contextual relevance.

To me, that means our brains and long term affective states are able to distinguish between work and play time. That is, being physically inactive during “work” time isn’t as detrimental to our mental health as physical inactivity during “play” time. Conversely, as this study shows, physical activity during “play” time is tremendously important to our overall mental health, while activity at work is (while still important) much less effective at maintaining overall mental health.

Subscribe to savage/zen

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.