Do you know why exercise is good for mental health?

We’ve said this times and times again exercise is good not only for the body but also for the brain. Studies across the board show that daily physical activity can also boost mental health. But what actually accounts for the association between exercise and mental health?

A new article published in Clinical Psychological Science Journal explores whether certain psychological factors may help to explain the benefits of daily physical activity for adolescents’ mental health.
The researchers examined two existing explanation for the link between exercise and mental health:

1) The self-image hypothesis suggests that physical activity has positive effects on body weight and body structure, leading to positive feedback from peers and improved self-image, and ultimately improving mental health.

2) The social interaction hypothesis, on the other hand, holds that it's the social aspects of physical activity -- such as social relationships and mutual support among team members -- that contribute to the positive effects of exercise on mental health.

Over 7,000 students were assessed for the purposes of the study. The researchers found that adolescents who were physically inactive or who perceived their bodies as either "too fat" or "too thin" were at greater risk for both internalizing problems (e.g., depression, anxiety) and externalizing problems (e.g., aggression, substance abuse).
Adolescents who participated in organized sports, on the other hand, were at lower risk for mental health problems.
Confirming both the self-image hypothesis and the social interaction hypothesis, adolescents' body weight perception (i.e., "too heavy," "good," or "too thin") and sports club membership each partially accounted for the relationship between physical activity and mental health, even after taking adolescents' backgrounds into account.
These results suggest that psychosocial factors, body image and social interaction, may help to explain at least part of the connection between physical activity and mental health.
The researchers acknowledge, however, that other factors, such as the physiological effects of exercise, are probably also at work.