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Australian Psychological Society: Take your brain to the gym

Exercise isn’t just a means to physical health. There are plenty of mental health gains to be made too.

Often we engage in exercise in pursuit of a specific goal. We might be training for a marathon, striving to beat our personal best benchmark or looking to gain strength. While these are certainly worthy pursuits, it’s equally important to set goals around the mental health benefits of movement and exercise.

As well as the many physical benefits of exercise, physical activity has also been shown to have plenty of mental benefits, such as increased confidence, decreased stress levels, and a release of feel-good endorphins and endocannabinoids, (1) which can improve mood, stress responses, pain control, immune responses and more. (2)

Physical activity has also been linked to enhanced memory, focus and cognitive flexibility. It promotes the growth of new neurons and strengthens neural connections, particularly in regions associated with learning and memory. (3)

There are also some links suggesting exercise can act as a promising intervention for depression in adolescents and young adults. (4) However, it’s suggested to pair this with other psychological treatments.

With this in mind, it makes sense that regular exercise be layered into people’s wellbeing strategies, especially when we consider the scale of Australia’s current mental health challenges.

It’s estimated that each year, 1 in 5 Australians will experience a mental health disorder. (5) That could be your family member, a colleague, a friend or even you.

While there are various factors that trigger a mental health challenge, the results are often similar; people living with mental illnesses often develop physical ailments and tend to die earlier than the general population.

Almost 80 per cent of people living with mental illness also have a mortality-related physical illness, and 55 per cent have two or more comorbid conditions.6 Socioeconomic factors also spur further impacts, with Australians living in disadvantaged areas being 65 per cent more likely to have comorbidity than others.

The broader benefits of exercise

As well as the aforementioned physical and mental benefits of regular exercise, there are also broader positive influences on our lives.

Those who exercise regularly are likely to have higher levels of self-esteem and self-confidence. (7) A positive ripple effect of this can be a boost in personal resiliency levels.

Regular exercise also offers exposure to more social interactions. By joining a gym, run/swim club or social sports group (e.g. a friendly game of soccer after work), you are cementing a sense of belonging, teamwork and camaraderie within yourself, all of which contribute positively to your mental resilience.

Sleep is also improved with regular exercise (if it’s not done right before you fall asleep, which can overstimulate your brain and body). It has been shown to help you enter a state of deep sleep (8) (also known as ‘slow wave’ sleep, which is critical for cognitive functioning), stabilise your mood and help you detach from those unhelpful thoughts that often keep people awake at night.

Supporting athletes

As well as advocating for the benefits of physical exercise amongst the broader Australian population, the Australian Psychological Society (APS) – and the psychology community more broadly – are also invested in providing tailored support to athletes, who often have a unique set of mental health requirements.

These can include performance enhancement and mental skill development, anxiety and stress management, mental focus, team building and leadership, general health and wellness, communication and conflict resolution, and more.

One of our colleges is dedicated to sport and exercise psychologists – as this is one of the nine areas of practice endorsement in the psychology industry – and athletes from all areas of sport come to us to help them with issues such as burnout, performance issues and injury management.

Sports psychologists offer tailored interventions to address these challenges, leading to enhanced mental clarity, focus and emotional regulation.

A sports and exercise psychologist can also provide longer-term support for high-profile/ high-performance athletes who may be experiencing a sense of grief following the end of their careers due to injury or retirement. (9)

Often the transition into a traditional career can be challenging, especially when you consider that many of these elite athletes have been training for their professional sporting careers since they were children. It is a core part of their identity, and that can be extremely hard to part with.

Achieving optimal performance

Contrary to popular belief, a sports and exercise psychologist isn’t just someone athletes call on when something has gone wrong. They can also be highly effective in supporting clients to prepare themselves mentally for significant sporting events.

Getting your legs to take you over the finish line is only half the battle. Much of an athlete’s success comes from mental persistence and resilience. Just as you need to train your body for optimal performance, you need to do the same for your brain.

Take US Olympian Michael Phelps for example. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, during the 200-metre butterfly race, almost immediately, his goggles filled with water. This meant Phelps was essentially swimming blind for one of the most important races of his career at that point.

For another athlete, this unforeseen challenge may have been enough to knock their confidence and prevent them from proceeding. But not for Phelps. Not only did he continue swimming, but he went on to win the race and break a world record.

Due to the extensive mental preparation he’d undergone throughout his training period, Phelps was able to visualise a myriad of circumstances that could occur during that race. He had prepared himself by branding into his mind exactly how many strokes he needed to do, how far away his fellow competitors would be from him and the moments when he needed to turn.

Not only this, he had also spent years preparing his brain to stay calm under pressure. Rather than entering fight-or-flight mode, he was able to stay focused on the task at hand and keep his end goal in mind: winning that medal.

In an interview following his win, (10) Phelps said in the month leading up to his race, he would spend nearly every day training and visualising different scenarios and preparing for them mentally.

He said, “[What] separated me through my career was my mental game… I eventually got to the point where I was competing against myself… I had to get stronger mentally and I had to find a way to do it”.

While we may not all be able to swim like Phelps, we can still borrow his mental preparation techniques with the help of a sports and psychology psychologist.

Some of the greatest sporting moments in Australia’s history, from Kathy Freeman’s gold-medal-winning run at the 2000 Sydney Olympics to the recent 20-penalty shoot-out win for the Matildas at the Women’s World Cup semi-finals, happen from an alignment of body and mind.

These experts can help their clients push beyond limiting self-beliefs and keep anxiety at bay. They can provide research-backed techniques to help athletes enter a state of calmness ahead of their big moment. And, they can help them position their minds for show-stopping success.

By Dr Zena Burgess, CEO, Australian Psychological Society


1. Mayo Clinic Staff. Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms. Mayo Clinic. 2017. Accessed 25 August, 2023. depression/in-depth/depression-and-exercise/art- 20046495

2. Grinspoon P. The endocannabinoid system: Essential and mysterious. Harvard Health Publishing. 2021. Accessed 25 August, 2023. edu/blog/the-endocannabinoid-system-essential-and-mysterious-202108112569

3. Press Office. Exercise and the Brain: The Neuroscience of Fitness Explored. Neuroscience News. 2023. Accessed 25 August, 2023

4. Exercise aids youth recovery from depression. Australian Psychological Society. 2018. Accessed 25 August, 2023. publications/inpsych/2018/june-issue-3/exercise-aids-youth-recovery-from-depression

5. Australia's mental health system. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. 2022. Accessed 25 August, 2023. australias-mental-health-services

6. Physical health of people with mental illness. Australian Psychological Society. 2019. Accessed 25 August, 2023. inpsych/2019/december/physical-health-of-people-with-mental-illness

7. Ricketts E, Tierney W. 4 ways physical activity improves your mental health. The University of Queensland. 2020. Accessed 25 August, 2023. article/2020/05/4-ways-physical-activity-improves-your-mental-health

8. Exercising for Better Sleep. John Hopkins Medicine. 2023. Accessed 25 August, 2023. https://www. exercising-for-better-sleep

9. Sport and exercise psychologists. Australian Psychological Society. 2023. Accessed 25 August, 2023.

10.Deokule I. “My goggles fill up with water… I counted my strokes” – Michael Phelps on how he swam ‘blind’ at the 2008 Olympics. Sportskeeda. 2022. Accessed 25 August. 2023. michael-phelps-swam-blind-2008-olympics


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