Why exercise and a healthy body leads to a healthy mind

Not sure how exercise will make you smarter? Here's another reason to lace up your trainers

Exercise mental health
(Image credit: Avi Richards/Unsplash)

There's a reason a lot of people say physical and mental health are linked, or exercise helps stave off dark thoughts: it's because it's true. There's several ways in which physical exercise can help with complex mental health issues like anxiety and depression. 

However, the surprising news is that physical exercise can also actually make you smarter, improving your cognitive performance in addition to having a therapeutic effect.  

One literature review, from researchers at the University of Baseland published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, evaluated 80 different studies regarding the relationship between physical health and cognitive performance. 

Endurance training, strength training and a mixture of the two were all found to improve mental fitness, helping participants score better on tests after exercise regimes. 

However, the interesting part is where improvements were highest: coordinated and challenging sports that require complex movement patterns and interaction with fellow players are significantly more effective. Think boxing, football, basketball, soccer, dance and martial arts. 

Exercise mental health

(Image credit: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash)

In these sports, a combination of strength and endurance training is usually present, in addition to a technical skillset. You have to engage your brain to think about complex footwork patterns and proprioception skills with every ball kicked, mitt punched or cha-cha danced. 

Boys and men seem to benefit more from a particularly hard workout than women, according to the literature review. The study's lead authors write "Differences between the sexes are particularly evident in the intensity of movement, but not in the type of sport. 

"A hard workout seems to be particularly worthwhile for boys and men. Paired with a gradual increase in intensity, this leads to a significantly greater improvement in cognitive performance over a longer period of time." 

Of course, this is in addition to exercise's therapeutic qualities mentioned earlier. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found "the mechanisms underlying the antidepressant effects of exercise remain in debate; however, the efficacy of exercise in decreasing symptoms of depression has been well established."

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Matt Evans

Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and is currently Fitness and Wellbeing Editor at TechRadar, covering all things exercise and nutrition on Fit&Well's tech-focused sister site. Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen runner, gym-goer, and infrequent yogi. His top fitness tip? Stretch.