23 May 2022, by Starmühler

Body and mind - sports for mental health

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May is Mental Health Awareness Month. In the U.S., mental health has long been a topic of discussion, and in Europe, too, the topic is slowly catching on, including in the fitness community. This is because numerous studies show that sporting activities can counteract anxiety or panic attacks. 


International athletes like Sophia Thiel or Naomi Osaka are breaking taboos and increasingly speaking publicly about the pressure they feel in competitive sports to be perfect. The topic of mental health is making the rounds on many levels; in fact, sports can have a positive influence on the psyche and have a preventive effect against depressive moods.


Neurobiological mechanisms as mood enhancers

Research has long been conducted in neurology to understand depression. How do antidepressants work? This has involved studying how and why depression develops: Until the 1990s, the so-called "monoamine deficiency hypothesis" prevailed. Researchers believed that in depression there were too few messenger substances, i.e. links between nerve cells, in the brain. Today, however, thanks to the body of knowledge, we know that different biochemical processes take place in the body that together are crucial to a person's mood.


Hormones control the mood

Current research focuses on the growth factor "BDNF - brain-derived neurotrophic factor". This protein ensures that nerve cells can connect with each other and thus grow. If there is a deficiency or even an excess of this substance in the brain, this can indicate depression, anxiety disorders or other mental illnesses. Medication can be used to correct an imbalance of this signaling substance. Sports activities can also level the BDNF concentration in the blood. Of course, sports can only contribute to the improvement of mental health in the long term in conjunction with other measures, such as talk therapy or drug support. Endurance sports in particular, such as running, cycling, swimming and hiking, can bring body and mind into balance. This is ensured by the release of the happiness hormones endorphins, serotonin and dopamine during sport.


Endurance training as an alternative to medication?

The paper "Physical activity and mental health "* describes how sport can be just as helpful in treating depression as medication. It examines the relationship between mental health and sport. A study from the USA was used for this purpose, in which more than 200 depressed people took part. They were divided into four groups: The first group had regular and controlled endurance training on a treadmill. The second group also had treadmill exercise, but without supervision. The third group received an antidepressant and the fourth a placebo. The results were astonishing: In the first group, the reduction of depression was clearly noticeable, even more significant than in the drug-treated group three. In the second group, a reduction in depression was also noticeable. The placebo group fared worst, although symptomatology was reduced here as well.


Individuality comes first

Mental illnesses are multifaceted and individual; it is impossible to lump all diagnoses together. Each clinical picture requires different treatments and solutions. Unfortunately, many sufferers report a lack of drive during depressive episodes. Therefore, it is important to adapt physical activities to the patient and the extent of his or her illness. However, the results of the study also show the following: Sport definitely has a supportive effect on depression, but it is often not possible to take advantage of this.


Body and mind go hand in hand 

A holistic view of the subject is essential. When observing sport and mental health, many factors must be considered: The individuality of each person and each disease, the different needs and possibilities. Thus, many physiotherapists and fitness trainers also try to strengthen their patients and clients mentally beyond the physical work. It is always important to look at the client holistically and to train not only physical but also mental characteristics. Only in this way can the psyche of athletes and amateur athletes be properly addressed and mental health strengthened.



* Schulz, K-H., A. Meyer, and N. Langguth. "Physical Activity and Mental Health." Bundesgesundheitsblatt-Gesundheitsforschung-Gesundheitsschutz 55.1 (2012), in cooperation with the Outpatient Center, the Department of Sports and Exercise Medicine, the Institute of Medical Psychology, and the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf.