Mental Health

Why is exercise is important for mental health?

by Maria Markou BSc, MSc, Ph.D student, Clinical Psychology
May 2018
Maria Markou

Ever had one of those days when you didn’t have enough energy to go training but when you did go you felt so much better? This resulting feeling of happiness, relaxation and optimism which is experienced as soon as you finish exercising is partly due to the chemical changes that take place in your body after exercise. The production of endorphins, for example, after a run, can act as a natural antidepressant without the side effects, relieving tension and boosting mental energy. For the past decade, evidence that exercise positively affects mental health has become impossible to ignore. Regardless of age, gender and fitness level, evidence shows that even a small amount of exercise can positively affect mental health.


What are the benefits of exercise, and more specifically of training in martial arts?

1.Enhances our perceived ability to cope under pressure 

Self-efficacy refers to an individual’s level of confidence in their ability to face challenges and succeed in specific situations or accomplish certain tasks. Take Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as an example. Imagine being grabbed and pushed to the ground and having the full weight of your opponent on top of you, trying to control your movement in order to gain a submission. Imagine both the internal and external pressure you are put through and the sense of accomplishment and personal strength you feel when being able to defend effectively and take back control. Compare this with everyday life situations, such as interpersonal problems or problems at work, where you are again dealing with the same internal and external pressure; it is the same idea.


Past performance accomplishments and mastery experiences are among the primary sources of information of self-efficacy. Realizing that you can keep yourself safe under attack, when training, especially when competing with more stronger opponents, gives you a great sense of accomplishment and faith in your own capabilities, which can apply to daily life challenges. There is no doubt therefore that exercise helps alleviate anxiety and other mental health conditions by increasing your perceived sense of coping with everyday challenges and by helping you “practice” on how to survive under pressure in daily life. 


2. Allows the experience of the benefits of Oxytocin 

Oxytocin is a hormone often referred to as the “love/empathy hormone”. It is produced in response to physical contact and it plays a major role in social bonding. In BJJ the competitors are in constant physical contact, allowing them to experience the benefits of the oxytocin hormone. Many studies have shown the powerful effects of oxytocin in its ability to build trust between people and break-down social barriers, which in turn can enhance mental health through companionship and social support. Therefore, through the skin-to-skin contact that comes as a result of training in such sports like BJJ, oxytocin is released in the body, making the individual more willing to relate and trust his/her opponent/partner. This can explain why friendships develop so quickly among BJJ training partners.


3. Forces us to be present in the moment

Many of us have difficulty staying present in the moment. We often find ourselves operating in an “automatic pilot” mode, focusing in the past (i.e. ruminating about past events), or focusing in the future (i.e. anticipating bad things in the future). Researchers agree that rumination and worry contribute to mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety.


Mindfulness refers to a psychological process/technique that involves bringing one’s attention to what is happening in the present moment in a non-judgmental way. In mindfulness exercises, individuals are encouraged to pay attention to their surroundings and their different sensation. Through these exercises, individuals learn new ways of approaching their thoughts and feelings as a way to become more aware of them and react differently to them.

Similar to mindfulness exercises, BJJ and other forms of martial arts force the athletes to be present in the moment or else they will get seriously injured.


Thus, training in martial arts helps train your mind to stay in the here-and-now. An individual who knows how to stay concentrated and fully present in the moment, will be more aware of his/her body sensations, feelings and thoughts, and thus will be more able to manage them instead of being overwhelmed by them. In addition to helping you stay focused on what is happening in your life at present instead of ruminating on the past or worrying about the future, mindfulness can also boost attention and concentration, allowing you to be more effective in daily tasks (i.e. in work), which can further boost your mental health.


4. Teaches us how to endure negative physical and emotional pain

People will usually do anything in order avoid experiencing negative painful emotions. This is not surprising: If someone is experiencing negative emotions, such as fear, he/she will naturally tend to avoid the specific situations that trigger such negative feelings. While responding to negative emotions with avoidance can bring about some benefits in the short-term (i.e. relief from anxiety), relying on avoidance as a way to manage negative emotions in the long-term can significantly interfere with an individual’s daily functioning, as well as prompt further avoidance and thus maintain those negative feelings.


Exercise can help modify these emotional action tendencies (i.e. avoidance) as it usually requires the athlete to endure negative physical and emotional states so as to remain engaged. Persisting in exercise, when both physically and mentally you want to leave the situation due to the emotional and physical pain, trains the individual to endure similar feelings in everyday life, helping to become more resilient.