From self-efficacy to brain function: how exercise encourages better mental health

Updated: Aug 14


Original image: Marcel Ardivan

Tips & tricks / by Sarah Nolan


In an age obsessed with convenience, our mental health is suffering. Sarah Nolan looks at how exercise could be the remedy we all need.


Exercise is an ingrained part of human nature. As a species, we've always needed to move in order to survive, whether it be navigating through dense forests or hunting for our next meal.


But now, in an age where we only have to raise ourselves up from the couch to gather snacks from the kitchen, or jump in our cars to get to where we need to be, our need to physically move to survive is minuscule in comparison with previous generations.


Too much of a good thing?


The constantly increasing state of ease and accessibility we find ourselves living in would make you think that mental health concerns should be at an all-time low. After all, more ease should equal less stress and more happiness... right?


In fact, rising numbers of depression and anxiety nationwide indicate quite the opposite. According to the Mental Health Foundation, 2.3% of UK adults were living with depression in 2007. By 2014, the proportion had increased to 3.3.%. The latest estimates from the World Population Review show that the figure now stands at around 4.5%.


Depression rates by country, 2021 – World Population Review

The correlation between society's growing state of inactivity and the nation's increasing mental health issues may just be that – a correlation. But, considering how exercise has been a recognised method for helping people manage their mental wellbeing for quite literally decades (something which has also been very well demonstrated over the past 15 months or so), surely we're dealing with something more legitimate here?


So, as modern society continues along the path of increasing idleness, perhaps it's time we take exercise a bit more seriously and embrace the many intrinsic benefits it can bring.


Benefit 1: Exposure to good stress


Technically speaking, when we exercise, we are putting stress on the body. As our body temperature increases and our heart rate rises, pro-inflammatory proteins known as cytokines begin to circulate through the body.


These proteins mimic our reactions to stressful situations where we need to think fast and possibly escape danger – an effect you might think is not something you'd like to encourage.


However, unlike a situation of negative stress, exercise also leads to an increase or up-regulation of anti-inflammatory proteins that help to negate any negative effects of cytokines. This balancing effect has been shown to improve our reactions to stressful situations in real life, including how our immune system reacts to them.


Benefit 2: Increasing our sense of control


Self-efficacy – the belief of being capable to exercise control over our own functioning and our lives – is one of the key foundations for our wellbeing. Unfortunately it can also be incredibly difficult to attain, which is something I can personally attest to.


It has been shown that self-efficacy can be increased through successfully ‘coping’ with the stress of exercising. As your fitness improves, you begin to achieve goals, and start feeling muscles in places you didn’t know you had them, your sense of feeling capable of improving yourself grows, in turn helping you feel more physically and emotionally powerful.

Diagram of the keys of self efficacy
Self-efficacy has been a staple in psychology for decades and remains a prominent topic when discussing mental health. Original image: Simply Psychology

How much of a beneficial impact exercise can have on self-efficacy has also been shown to depend on the sport or activity you choose to do. Studies have demonstrated that martial arts, an exercise that emphasises efficiency and independence, can have a much greater effect on the participant’s feelings of self-efficacy than an activity like stationary bike riding.


Benefit 3: Treating the symptoms of depression


There has been very little research to test the efficacy of exercise in treating depression. Studies of patients diagnosed with the condition have shown conflicting results, and in most of them, it is hard to establish a good dosage of exercise in relation to medication. However, that doesn't mean we should disregard those studies that do demonstrate the mental benefits of exercise. In fact, some have produced some very compelling data.


In one 16-week study of 202 people, exercise was found to be just as effective as an antidepressant (sertraline) in treating major depressive disorder (MDD). Of those that received medication, 47% no longer met the criteria for MDD after 4 months of treatment, while supervised exercise and home exercise showed a 45% and 40% improvement respectively. Even placebo or light exercise had some impact, showing a 31% rate of improvement.


That's a pretty incredible result and suggests a real legitimacy to medical professionals prescribing exercise or movement classes instead of or with other treatments. When taking into account the self-efficacy benefits they would also receive, exercise could give them the tools to help themselves.


Benefit 4: Improving our long-term mental health


Outside of psychological issues like depression and anxiety, regular exercise can also have beneficial neurological effects, most notably on brain plasticity.


Brain plasticity is the term used to describe the brain’s ability to adapt to new conditions and is something that becomes particularly important as we age. This characteristic of our brains is known to be affected in cognitive impairment and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease, which in turn are affected or accelerated by lifestyle habits.


One such lifestyle habit is a lack of exercise which, when addressed through a healthy exercise regimen, can have a range of benefits for people with long-term mental health issues. These include reducing hospitalisations in people with dementia and producing an antidepressant effect in patients with severe Alzheimer’s Disease.


It's accessible and it works!

Although research shows that exercise is not necessarily better than antidepressants in treating mental illnesses, its accessibility (practically everyone in the world can exercise!) and the data that suggests it can be almost as effective as medication is something that should excite us all.


With all the technology that is available to us, our lives at the moment seem to have been designed to be convenient. It is easy to turn over our power and autonomy in exchange for such convenience, but by returning power to ourselves, we can take back our own individual control over our specific situations.


Obviously, when dealing with depression or anxiety, the main thing to remember is that talking with a doctor or therapist should always be your first port of call. But it's always wise to remember the many different benefits exercise can also bring us.