Physical activity and mental health

Before starting to test the effect of PA on our mood states and the relationship between PA and sleep, information based on scientific research is going to be summarized. 

Physical activity and mental health 

Many have started to be interested in PA activity during COVID-19 due to the amount of inactivity. However, concepts such as sport, exercise or physical activity are sometimes misunderstood. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines physical activity as “any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure. Physical activity refers to all movement including during leisure time, for transport to get to and from places, or as part of a person’s work” (2022, p.1). 

As Castañeda-Babarro et al. (2020) and Woods et al. (2020) state, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the amount of physical activity decreased. This lack of physical activity can increase the risk of damage to the brain and immune, respiratory, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal systems (Woods et al., 2020), and also to our mental health stability. As Ai et al. (2021) mentioned, practicing physical activity during Covid-19 enhanced happiness, improve mental health, and reduced anxiety, sadness, and depression. 

Moreover, one of the professions most affected by Covid-19 and its consequences was teaching. Consequently, teachers suffered elevated levels of distress and their mental health levels decreased vastly (Aperribai, 2020). Physical activity has been recommended to prevent consequences for mental health in future similar situations.  

However, the mental health benefits of physical activity are not limited to Covid-19. WHO (2022) states that physical activity is beneficial for the mind, reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression and improves individual’s overall well-being. Moreover, regular physical activity reduces the risk of developing depression and anxiety, both acute and chronic, also among people who have depressive or anxiety symptoms but no clinical depression (Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee, 2018). Schuch, F. et al (2019) found out that higher physical activity can reduce the risk of developing anxiety and protect from agoraphobia and post-traumatic disorder. 

Ashley (2018) showed that thanks to physical activity, mental health wellness increases among people that are inactive. Hence, PA is not only beneficial for individuals that are used to exercise. Furthermore, it can be especially beneficial for teenagers because they are developing their sense of identity, and independence and transitioning into adulthood. They suffer a lot of pressure and PA has been shown as an effective method to decrease the potential risk of having mental health deficits (Beauchamp, 2018). 

Taking into consideration the mental and emotional benefits mentioned before and the vastly known physical benefits of PA, WHO and some European countries, including Finland, have enlisted some recommendations: 

WHO (2022)

Adults (18-64 years)

  • Should do at least 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity; or at least 75–150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity; or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity throughout the week
  • Should also do muscle-strengthening activities at moderate or greater intensity that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week, as these provide additional health benefits.
  • May increase moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity to more than 300 minutes (about 5 hours); or do more than 150 minutes (about 2 and a half hours) of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity; or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity throughout the week for additional health benefits.
  • Should limit the amount of time spent being sedentary. Replacing sedentary time with physical activity of any intensity (including light intensity) provides health benefits, and
  • To help reduce the detrimental effects of high levels of sedentary behaviour on health, all adults and older adults should aim to do more than the recommended levels of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity

Kahlmeier, S. et al. (2015) compared the national PA recommendations of 37 European countries. Even if 21 countries have national recommendations, most of them are not updated and do not meet WHO’s requirements. Thus, public and governmental awareness is still needed. 



Ai, X., Yang, J., Lin, Z., Wan, X. (2021). Mental Health and the Role of Physical Activity During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 1-8. 

Aperribai, L., Cortabarria, L., Aguirre, T., Verche, E., Borges, A. (2020). Teachers’ Physical Activity and Mental Health During Lockdown Due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1-14. 

Ashley, M. (2018). The relationship between physical inactivity and mental wellbeing: Findings from a gamification-based community wide physical activity intervention. Health Psychology Open, 1-8. 

Beauchamp, M.R. (2018). Physical Inactivity and Mental Health in Late Adolescence. American Medical Association, 75(6), 543-544.

Castañeda-Babarro, A., Arbillaga-Etxarri, A., Gutiérrez-Santamaría, B. & Coca, A. (2020). Physical Activity Change during COVID-19 Confinement. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17, 1-10. 

Kahlmeier, S., Wijnhoven, T. M. A., Alpiger, P., Schweizer, C., Breda, J. and Martin, B. W. (2015). National physical activity recommendations: systematic overview and analysis of the situation in European countries. BMC Public Health, 15(133), 1-14. DOI 10.1186/s12889-015-1412-3 

Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee. (2018). Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Scientific Report. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services; 2018.

Schuch, F., Stubbs, B., Meyer, J., Heissel, A., Zech, P., Vancampfort, D., et al. (2019). Physical activity protects from incident anxiety: A meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Depression and Anxiety, 36(9):846–58. DOI:10.1002/da.22915  

Woods, J., Hutchinson, N. T., Powers, S.K.; Roberts, W. O., Gomez-Cabrera, M.C.; Radak, Z.; Berkes, I., Boros, A., Boldogh, I., Leeuwenburgh, C., Coelho-Junior, H. J., Marzetti, E., Cheng, Y.; Liu, J., Durstine, J.L., Sun, J., Li Li J. (2020). The COVID-19 Pandemic and Physical Activity. Sports Medicine and Health Science, 55-64. 

World Health Organization. (2022). Physical Activity. World Health Organization.