The Positive Impact Of Sports On Mental Health

More and more people are starting to pay attention to the issues surrounding mental health. Currently, it is estimated that 1 in 4 people experience poor mental health at least once a year, and the economic burden of these mental health issues is estimated to cost England £104 billion yearly (1). Mental health issues are not discriminatory either, they affect people from a range of backgrounds, ages, and genders.  

Now that we’ve outlined the issue, what exactly is mental health? Keyes defines positive mental health as being a syndrome of emotional, social, and psychological wellbeing (2). Essentially when all these needs are being met, an individual is likely to feel good and therefore experience positive mental health. When these needs are not being met, a person can find themselves being in a state of poor mental health. 

It’s also important to distinguish the difference between mental health and mental illness – they are not the same thing. As discussed, mental health refers to a person’s emotional, social and psychological wellbeing, which affects how a person thinks, feels, and acts. A mental illness is a condition that directly affects a person’s mood, feelings, or behaviours. Examples of common mental illnesses include depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.  

So, what does sport and exercise have to do with mental health? Well, although not a complete solution to solving a person’s issues suffering from poor mental health, it can be an effective step in promoting positive mental well-being. This article is going to look at some of the benefits exercise and sport have to mental health. 

Relieve stress 

When a person is dealing with hardship or feeling low, the body’s response can be to create a stress response. This is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response and is a release of the hormone’s noradrenaline, cortisol, and adrenaline. These are used to prepare the body to take action in case of an emergency. The symptoms of these increased hormones include elevated blood pressure, sweating, and loss of appetite.  

Sport and exercise can be a great way of tackling stress, as it provides a distraction for people that are dealing with stressful situations. Instead of focusing on their issues, individuals can concentrate on the rhythm of their body – almost like a physical meditation.  

Although not conclusive, exercise is also suggested to have a beneficial physiological effect on stress. Research suggests that exercise changes the way a person reacts to the hormones that are linked with stress (3). Almost as if the body is recreating the ‘fight or flight’ reaction and learning to deal with it. 

Improve mood 

One thing that literature and research are clear on, is that exercise can boost a person’s mood. One study compared people’s moods after completing an exercise bout vs being sedentary (watching TV etc.). The study found that participants felt calmer, more content, and more awake when being active, compared to sedentary (4).  

There are a few reasons why this occurs. The first is something we’ve already talked about and that is the distraction that sport and exercise provide from everyday life stressors. The second is that when people exercise, their bodies produce the hormone serotonin. Alongside this, there is an increase in the activation of neurotransmitters in the brain, known as endorphins. These are responsible for making a person feel good. This feeling has also been labelled as ‘runners high’ and can be described as a state of euphoria. This feeling can last for a couple of hours after exercise is completed. 

Social life 

As per Keyes definition, for a person to be mentally well, they need to be engaging socially. In having a strong social life, a person can gain many benefits. These can range from having various people to share problems with and find solutions, to simply just having a laugh and relaxing with friends.  

Research has shown that in developing close friendships, people can gain promotional benefits such as increased self-worth and seeing themselves as being socially accepted (5). These contribute to a person experiencing positive mental health.  

Sport and exercise are great in bringing people together that otherwise might not cross paths. It allows people to come together at various points during their week and engage in their chosen activity. This creates friendships that extend outside of a sport setting and have the potential to turn into life-long bonds.   


Research has shown that people who don’t sleep well, especially adolescences, are more likely to experience depressive symptoms (6). Therefore, it is vital to ensure proper sleep to maintain a healthy mental state. 

Exercise has been shown to regulate the body’s circadian rhythm. Essentially, this is responsible for when a person feels awake or is tired. Exercise can reset this circadian rhythm, which can result in improved sleep patterns (7). This means a person can reset a negative sleep pattern and this will play a part in increasing mental health. 

It’s also important to consider the timing of exercise. For instance, it is advised that exercise is not performed close to when a person is going to sleep, as this can be detrimental to sleep.  

Self confidence 

Finally, exercise and sport can really increase a person’s self-worth. There are many benefits to exercise, that have a direct effect on a person’s self-confidence. These can include; becoming fitter, having more energy, looking better, learning a new skill, and having a better functioning body. These changes often occur without a person noticing or expecting them to happen. When results are seen, individuals will feel a sense of pride over what they have achieved and this contributes to increased self-confidence, thus increasing mental health. 


  1. England, N. H. S., & DoHaS, C. (2016). Implementing the five year forward view for mental health. London: NHS England
  1. Keyes, C. L. (2002). The mental health continuum: From languishing to flourishing in life. Journal of health and social behavior, 207-222. 
  1. Jackson, E. M. (2013). Stress relief: The role of exercise in stress management. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal17(3), 14-19. 
  1.  Kanning, M., & Schlicht, W. (2010). Be active and become happy: an ecological momentary assessment of physical activity and mood. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology32(2), 253-261. 
  1. Narr, R. K., Allen, J. P., Tan, J. S., & Loeb, E. L. (2019). Close friendship strength and broader peer group desirability as differential predictors of adult mental health. Child development90(1), 298-313. 
  1. Al-Abri, M. A. (2015). Sleep Deprivation and Depression: A bi-directional association. Sultan Qaboos University Medical Journal15(1), e4. 
  1. Gabriel, B. M., & Zierath, J. R. (2019). Circadian rhythms and exercise—re-setting the clock in metabolic disease. Nature Reviews Endocrinology15(4), 197-206. 

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