Sport and Mental Health

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Sport and Mental Health

Inspired by Mental Health Awareness campaigns, we’d like to see more people jumping into a new form of activity. That’s because there are three main ways in which playing sport can improve the condition of your mental health. By playing sport you can target the following ‘problem areas’:

  1. Anxiety and Depression

  2. Cognitive Function

  3. Motivation

Keep reading to find out how sporting activity can do so much good at once!


Anxiety and Depression

There are strong links between sport and mental health & wellbeing.

Exercise has been proven to alleviate some mental health disorders, namely anxiety and depression. Furthermore, taking up a sport can also stave off mental health problems from re-occurring or from developing in the first place.

Some reasons for this benefit are psychological; the resulting sense of achievement will improve your self-esteem. This is a simple and clear consequence we can all celebrate!

There are strong links between sport and mental health & wellbeing. Mental Health in Sport | Stadia Sports Investigates Wellbeing

However there are also some chemical reasons for the benefits of sport. Let’s take a closer look at how exercise effects the brain:


  • Exercise stimulates your brain in ways which causes it to release endorphins. These happy hormones regulate your mood and relax your mind. That’s why so many people report feeling a “rush” or a “high” after exercise.
  • Finding a natural way of boosting your mood can be vital for people with anxiety or depression.


  • Serotonin has a similar effect to that of endorphins. A cause (and a result) of depression is a severe lack of this neurotransmitter; it is responsible for your brain’s control over sleep, mood, relaxation, and even behaviour.
  • Some of the most common depression and anxiety medication is designed to regulate the brain’s serotonin levels. If you’ve not been prescribed this sort of medication, taking up a sport could help you on your way – that’s because exercise has a similar effect!
  • Furthermore, if you take up sport alongside treatment you could speed up the mental health recovery process.

Reducing Excess Cortisol

  • Cortisol is a naturally occurring hormone with many uses. However, people suffering from anxiety or depression often have too much in their body. Amongst other symptoms, this causes fatigue – in short, it exacerbates mental health disorders.
  • Exercise regulates the body’s levels of cortisol, offering more chance of recovering well.

The NHS describes both Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Clinical Depression as specific, long-term conditions with physical and psychological symptoms. If you notice your day-to-day life hampered by any symptoms, it’s really important to see a doctor. In the meantime, if these issues start creeping in, why not also make a small lifestyle change? Find a sport you really enjoy.


Cognitive Function

Cognitive function refers to any task which requires mental processes.

For example talking, reasoning, and using your memory, your ability to focus or, significantly, your ability to learn new skills.

You might simply describe all these functions as thinking! Regardless of how you define it, cognitive function is effected by mental health.

Cognitive function refers to any task which requires mental processes. Mental Health in Sport | Stadia Sports Investigates Wellbeing

When you start playing a sport, you’re guaranteed to learn lots of new skills and processes.

  • In addition to activity levels and social connections, the NHS points to learning as a crucial step to mental wellbeing. That’s because it gives you a sense of achievement and therefore helps to restore self-esteem and confidence.
  • Again, there is also a biological effect: exercise and learning are known to stimulate the brain in ways which create new synapses! This means it will keep your cognitive functions healthy and efficient.

Mental health problems are commonly treated by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

One of the main aims of CBT is to identify and break so-called ‘vicious circles’. This refers to low mood, negative thoughts and reduced activity all feeding into one another and perpetuating an unhealthy mental state.

Improved cognitive function can help you to break out of a vicious circle.

  • You can improve your cognitive function by sleeping better. Taking part in sporting activities can tire the body out enough to help you sleep. This will result in a less tired mind with better cognitive function!
  • Exercise also enhances the brain’s levels of healthy proteins such as neurotrophic factors. They promote brain health and improve memory – a huge aspect of cognitive function.

If you are more alert and able to concentrate, if you can complete day-to-day tasks more easily, you’ll be less likely to experience negative thoughts. Thus, you can break the circle and lift your mood.

If you want to exercise the brain, go for exercise which involves more complex cognitive functions. For example coordination, rhythm, accuracy and strategy. Sport and games which takes on these tasks can really give your mental health a boost.



A prolonged lack of motivation is a symptom of many mental illnesses.

In fact, it tends to be a contributing factor in those vicious circles. That’s why motivation is a problem area.

Everyone struggles with motivation at some time in their life so everyone is at risk of slipping into negative thoughts and low mood.

When motivation is such a problem, it can be really daunting, seemingly impossible to increase your activity levels.

A prolonged lack of motivation is a symptom of many mental illnesses. Mental Health in Sport | Stadia Sports Investigates Wellbeing

So how and why can sport help with this element of mental health?


  • It’s far too easy to put off a jog or a trip to the gym. In signing up to a specific club or group, you remove the question of procrastination! You’re far more likely to actually do your exercise if you have a specific group to attend.
  • That’s not all. In addition to the subsequent mental benefits of sport, the structure itself will help you to plan in other important activities. After all, if you struggle with natural motivation, a timetable can really help you.


  • As we’ve already mentioned, the NHS advises that social connections and activity levels contribute to mental wellbeing.
  • When you have low motivation, it’s important to make things more achievable. Therefore, combining all-important exercise with social interaction will give you a boost much more quickly.
  • Even if the sport you choose isn’t team-based, most sporting activities still involve attending some sort of club or venue with the opportunity to make friends. This makes you even more likely to enjoy your sport of choice, meaning you’ll be more motivated to continue.

Once you’ve been taking part in sport for a little while you’ll soon find yourself more determined. As your willpower improves, so too will your motivation. Therefore sport will have a wonderful impact on your mental health as a whole.


If you already play sport for mental wellbeing as well as for physical health, let us know!

Don't know where to start? Explore our sports blog for more inspiration – you might even find a life-long passion!

2 months ago