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The importance of physical activity

Since the mid 1990s it has become accepted that there is some association between physical activity and different aspects of mental health and well-being. Some academics question the rigour of the studies undertaken on the benefits of health (1) but nonetheless there appears to be mounting evidence of the importance of physical activity to anything we would consider as a flourishing life. The evidence is strongest in relation to young people. This does not mean that the benefits are fewer for adults; simply that there have been fewer studies.

Research suggests that physical activity has a beneficial effect on individuals’:

  • Self-esteem (the emotional judgement we make on ourselves as individuals and how well we are doing in life)
  • Self-concept (the overall way we describe ourselves/our identity)
  • Self-efficacy (whether we think we can achieve  our goals)
  • Body-image (eg through feelings of strength, weight reduction etc)
  • Cognitive development and academic performance
  • Social competence and pro-social behaviour
  • Feelings of anxiety and stress
  • Social competence and pro-social behaviour
  • Mood (positive mood; less likely to feel depressed)
  • Feelings of anxiety and stress (less likely to experience problems)
  • Problems with conditions such as Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder or recovery from drugs or alcohol misuse.

In short, physical activity has the capacity to reduce symptoms of mental health problems (anxiety and depression)  as well as improve overall feelings of mental well-being.

There are also social benefits to physical activity. For example, in a  2005 article Bailey argues that physical activity, involving sport, can benefit social inclusion and build community capacity. The benefits arise, for example, from an increased sense of belonging, such as to a club or team, and also through increasing social networks. (2) Sport can also develop young people’s moral code through encouraging a sense of fair play. Again this can be beneficial not just to individuals but to groups and communities.

Identifying the reasons why physical activity is so beneficial

Traditionally researchers have advanced the idea that physical activity is good  for mental well-being as there are various physiological mechanisms (eg hormonal or cardiovascular) and psychological mechanisms which lead to -

  • Enhanced self-esteem and self-perception
  • A sense of personal well-being
  • Improved cognitive function, therefore improved performance
  • Better sleep
  • Reduction in stress and anxiety.


1. Whitelaw, Sandy, Swift, Jan, Goodwin Avril, Clark, Darren, Physical Activity and Mental Health: the role of physical activiy in promoting mental wellbeing and preventing mental health problems. An evidence briefing published by NHS Health Scotland, 2008.

2. Bailey, R. (2005) Evaluating the Relationship between Physical education, Sport and Social Inclusion, Educational Review, 57, 71-90.






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