Healthy Life

It’s no secret that being active and playing sports can improve your physical fitness. But regular physical activity has another winning result: it has several mental health benefits, too.

New research confirms how participation in sports (even if you’re just on the sidelines) can improve your mood and fight off depression.

A 2023 study from the University of South Australia found that, when it comes to treating depression, physical activity is 1.5 times more effective than counselling or leading medications. “Physical activity is known to help improve mental health. Yet despite the evidence, it has not been widely adopted as a first-choice treatment,” said lead researcher Dr Ben Singh. “Our review shows that physical activity interventions can significantly reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in all clinical populations, with some groups showing even greater signs of improvement.”

The study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found that higher intensity exercise had greater improvements for depression and anxiety, while longer durations had smaller effects when compared to short and mid-duration bursts. You know what that means, right? The HIIT (high intensity interval training) class at your local gym is calling!

The study highlighted the immediate positive impact of getting out and getting active, noting that exercise interventions that were 12 weeks or shorter were most the effective at reducing mental health symptoms. “We also found that all types of physical activity and exercise were beneficial, including aerobic exercise such as walking, resistance training, Pilates, and yoga,” said Singh. “Importantly, the research shows that it doesn’t take much for exercise to make a positive change to your mental health.”

Sport is good, team sport is better

Team sports offer the greatest positive impact. A 2017 study by the Medical University of Vienna in Austria found that being an active member of a sports club has a positive effect upon mental health. Study lead Hans-Peter Hutter emphasised that, “These effects are much greater than those resulting from individually organised sporting activities.”

This ties into a separate 2016 study by the British Psychological Society, which found that athletes in individual sports are more prone to developing depressive symptoms than athletes in team sports.

The key take-out here is, where possible, to join clubs or gym classes – or to enlist a friend or relative as your training partner. The mental health benefits of sporting activity are boosted by a sense of community… even if it sometimes feels like a case of “suffering together”!

Boost your mood by spectating

Speaking of suffering together, a large-scale study published in 2023 by the UK’s Anglia Ruskin University found that attending live sporting events as a spectator can improve your levels of wellbeing and reduce feelings of loneliness. The study, which included data from 7 209 adults aged 16 to 85, found that attending live sporting events results in higher scores of two major measurements of subjective wellbeing: life satisfaction and a sense of “life being worthwhile”, as well as lower levels of loneliness.

The study also found that attending live sporting events leads to an increase in people's sense that “life is worthwhile”, with the size of this increase comparable to that of finding a job. “The live events covered by the survey ranged from free amateur events, such as watching village sports teams, right through to Premier League football matches,” said lead author Dr Helen Keyes. “Watching live sport of all types provides many opportunities for social interaction and this helps to forge group identity and belonging, which in turn mitigates loneliness and boosts levels of wellbeing.”