S2E15: How does physical activity influence mental health?

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S2E15: How does physical activity influence mental health?
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Physical activity influences mental health, it is well known, but to what extent and how? This is the question we are discussing with a specialist in the field, Isabelle Doré, Ph.D. and professor at the School of Kinesiology and Physical Activity Sciences at the University of Montreal.

Daniel : Does physical activity improve our mental health?

Isabelle : Absolutely! There are more and more studies showing that physical activity is in fact a vehicle and a promoter of good mental health and that it is an excellent tool for reducing anxiety and depressive symptoms.

Daniel : Is there a minimum dose of physical activity to practice per week and what are its effects on mental health?

Isabelle : There are no specific guidelines or recommendations for the amount of physical activity to achieve for mental health benefits. I would tell you that if I managed to put my finger on a specific number in my career, I would be more than blessed!

Currently, we use as references the Canadian guides and recommendations that exist on physical health, namely the completion of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity, per week.

These 150 minutes have shown positive results in reducing the risk of depression. That being said, there are a multitude of components that have a differential impact on mental health that must be taken into account.

Daniel : Why does physical activity allow us to reduce our risk of developing mental health problems? What are the mechanisms?

Isabelle : There are three main mechanisms involved in the impact of physical activity on mental health:

  • Biological mechanisms: physical activity has benefits on mental health in 2 ways. The first way would be the secretion of serotonin and endorphin: hormones known for their analgesic and antidepressant effects. The second way would be the regulation of hormones. Indeed, during the practice of physical activity, our body heat increases, thus promoting blood circulation not only in our heart, but also in our brain. Better blood flow to the brain allows for better regulation of cortisol, which is found to be the stress hormone. Therefore, the practice of physical activity allows a better regulation of stress.
  • Psychological mechanisms: physical activity has short-term mental health benefits thanks to its distracting power. Indeed, many people turn to physical activity when they are having a bad day or experiencing an episode of stress. Just going for a walk, run, or just moving around would interrupt negative thoughts by focusing our attention on what we are doing right now, not our worries. This represents an excellent short-term solution. Another important element would be the self-esteem that we get when we set and achieve our physical activity goals.
  • Social mechanisms: this mechanism encompasses the practice of physical activity in a social context, which happens to be my specialty. The practice of physical activity is often done in a social environment and the simple fact of having interactions with other people would have a direct impact on our social network, our social support and our feeling of belonging. The more people have a strong sense of belonging to a group, the more social interactions they have and the more social support they have when they need it. Rest assured, you don't need to be on a sports team; a simple walk with colleagues at lunchtime or even participating in a group course does the trick.

Daniel : Would a person who is more of a lonely type, but who smiles and greets people he meets during his walk / run, allow him to achieve the benefits of the social mechanisms mentioned above?

Isabelle : My personal answer would be yes, but there is no scientific data that abounds in this direction. For my part, it brings me a lot to meet people on the trails and to know that they also took a few minutes of their day to take care of themselves.

It is also important to realize that there is no lack of benefits when we practice our physical activity alone, it is only that the benefits are greater when practiced in a group.

Daniel : Is it true that the simple fact of going outdoors, up to about 2 hours per week, would be beneficial for mental health?

Isabelle : The literature indeed seems to demonstrate a joint and additive effect on mental health of exposure to nature in a context or no physical activity.

Nature is known for its soothing and relaxing benefits so it's normal to think that it promotes good mental health.

In addition, there are a host of organizations that use the outdoors to create a network and a sense of belonging. It remains a very powerful and universal vehicle.

Daniel : What is the impact of physical activity on the psychosocial development of adolescents?

Isabelle : He is huge! As we know that physical activity reduces stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms, its regular practice is important in adolescents because it is during this period that we can note an increase in various mental health problems.

Physical activity among young people not only affects mental health, but also indirectly affects academic success and persistence in school. Indeed, sport is an important factor in school retention among young people. It not only gives them a sense of belonging, but also a motivation to go to their school day in and day out.

We now know that the periods of physical activity included in the school program are essential for academic development because they increase students' concentration and receptivity.

Daniel : Do you think it is important to further develop the motor skills of young people in order to equip them more when they are older in order to offer them a wider choice of physical activity to practice in adulthood?

Isabelle : Physical education teachers have a huge role not only in developing physical skills, but also in promoting them. There are indeed a host of motor skills that the child must have and the earlier we intervene, the more it is beneficial.

It happens as much in childcare centers, in family homes, as in school. The challenge is to continue mobility in adolescence, but also in adulthood.

Daniel : What are the benefits of physical activity for people with cancer or in remission?

Isabelle : The benefits are very numerous and we have seen a great change in mentality in recent years. In fact, about 30 years ago, people with cancer were recommended to rest and avoid all forms of physical activity. Today, we ask them to move as much as possible and we help them to be mobile.

The important thing is to intervene as soon as possible, that is, as soon as a diagnosis is obtained. Patients are therefore taken care of and a physical activity program is offered to them in order to optimize their physical condition, which has enormous benefits on mental and physical health.

It allows these people to reduce their stress and to meet people who are, or not, in the same situation as them.

Daniel : Can you tell us about your research on immunosuppressed?

Isabelle : Absolutely! The whole thing is called Laurent project.

Laurent is a boy who has undergone a double liver transplant and is immunosuppressed. He has several dogs and cats and they are very close to them. However, with his illness, he was advised to part with his companions by risk of transmission of diseases, zoonoses for example. His mother, who is also a veterinarian, was a little skeptical about the idea and decided to find out: the Laurent Project was born!

We are therefore a group of professionals who focus on the benefits of pets, lifestyle, mental health, vs the risks of zoonoses. For now, we think and want the benefits outweigh the risks.

If we look at the Covid side, we wanted to document the impact of the virus on the mental health of immunosuppressed people, but also on people with pets. We observe that the latter have reduced their physical activity much less during the Covid. So it's super interesting to know that pets have been protective of mental health and healthy lifestyles.

Daniel : Knowing that you are also an epidemiologist, what is your opinion on the measures related to physical activity that were taken during the Covid (closing gyms, stopping sports, etc.).

Isabelle : It is difficult to say because we could only assess the impact of measures taken after the fact, according to the evolution of the Covid. One thing is certain, I think that we understood a little too late the importance of sports and physical activity in the context of a pandemic: it unfortunately became a priority late.

For weight rooms, it is very sensitive as a subject. In my opinion, the closed spaces and very little control justified the measures of the government. On the other hand, I believe that we should have developed much more important initiatives that would have made it possible to practice physical activity in safer contexts. Take back our green spaces, or even use schoolyards, for example.

Daniel : In conclusion, how can we follow your projects?

Isabelle : For people who are interested in the research component, I invite you to take a look at my page Facebook which expose a host of research projects carried out by my students as well as by me.

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