Can Physical Activity Improve Mental Health? What We Have Learnt From the Covid Environment

It’s no surprise that mental health is firmly in the spotlight at the moment. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has presented us with a whole new set of challenges – both mental and physical. The business world is no different, with many workforces experiencing drastic change in a short space of time. The impact on mental health can’t be understated, but could proactively driving your people toward healthier lifestyles improve outcomes?

There are many risk factors that affect mental health and contribute to mental illnesses. Family history, alcohol and drug abuse, stressful life situations like bereavement, finances, divorce and giving birth can all be stressors. Add the context of a pandemic and these factors become even more pronounced, as well as introducing new challenges around isolation and loneliness and reduced levels of physical activity. The overall impact on our lifestyles is not insignificant.

Research backs up the notion that people’s mental health suffered during this period. Data from our Workplace Wellness survey this February showed that 16.5% (1) of respondents rated their mental health as poor or very poor, compared with 8% (2) in a similar survey from 2019. Likewise, almost three times more people were experiencing low levels of life satisfaction – 17.5% (1) compared to 6% (2) in 2019, indicating a clear decline due to the events of the past year.

The link between physical and mental health

A 2011 study (3) for example, showed that people with depression may have what’s known as sticky platelets, a common cause of coronary artery disease (CAD). In fact, people diagnosed with depressive disorder were 64% more likely to develop CAD. While it’s not totally clear whether the depression on its own is a risk factor, evidence from another study showed that when depression is treated before the CAD develops, it halves the excess risk of coronary artery issues.

The common approach is to diagnose and treat mental health disorders once they present. But, given the connection between mental and physical health, and the impact lifestyle can have, it’s fair to say that focusing on prevention and addressing lifestyle risk factors has a major role to play.

Exercise is a key part of a healthy lifestyle and there’s increasing scientific evidence that it can benefit mental health. A 2018 study (4) showed that brain-derived neurotrophic factor increases with exercise and this can decrease depression risk by about 17%. Similarly, a 2009 Harvard Medical School publication (5) found that exercise lowers total cytokines by reducing IL6 (increased amounts of which are linked to major depression and anxiety) and boosting levels of anti-inflammatory cytokine IL10.

Britain’s Healthiest Workplace data (6) supports this notion. Among our member base, those who were within a healthy range for key lifestyle factors (exercise, BMI and alcohol consumption) were less likely to suffer from poor mental health or mental illness.

Cause and effect

But, it’s very much cause and effect. Data from a 2016 study (6) indicated that people with anxiety are less likely to engage in healthy behaviours like exercise. So, while exercise has benefits for mental health, mental health itself can be a barrier to engagement.

Balance is also important. As well as low activity levels being a risk factor for depression, BHW 2 data showed that those with extreme activity levels were also at higher risk compared to those who exercise regularly or moderately. The same is true for BMI and alcohol consumption. Those at each end of the scale showed a higher rate of depression. Dr Keith Klintworth, CEO of VitalityHealth states: “It all comes back to work-life balance, but also just balance. Balancing our exercise requirement and balancing our nutrition”. This is fundamental to a healthy lifestyle.

What’s clear is that a combined approach, focusing on diagnosis and treatment of mental illness as well as encouraging positive mental health works best. As businesses, we need to be more proactive in promoting healthier lifestyles among our employees, as it would not only benefit far more people, but also reduce the incidence of more serious problems down the line.


1. Vitality Workplace Wellness Survey 2021
2. Britain’s Healthiest Workplace 2019
3. NHLBI:NIH publication 2017
4. Exercise and depression: AMJ Psychiatry Schuck et al 2018
5. Harvard Medical School publication Oct 2009
6. Current Psychiatry report: Anxiety and cardiovascular disease, Elano et al, Nov 2016

This article is provided by Vitality Health.

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