You’ve probably experienced a feeling of flow before? When you completely lose yourself in what you’re doing, totally absorbed in a task. It’s a hugely satisfying feeling – maybe you remember it from being a kid. It can happen to us less and less as we get older – and one way into this feeling of flow is by playing sport.
We all understand the importance of exercise, and the physiological benefits. A healthy cardiovascular system, good working joints, and more energy. The problem is, if exercise feels like another thing on the to do list, it can lead to a sense of anxiety, obligation, perhaps even overwhelm.
You might be less familiar with the psychological benefits of exercise. And if we’re talking the playfulness, community and connection associated with sports – these benefits are even greater.
The joyful rush felt after a session of exercise is down to endorphins – chemicals released in the brain which relieve pain and help to calm you down. Around 75%-90% of visits to the doctor are caused by stress related illness and regular exercise radically supports stress reduction. The impact works from both sides: not only are endorphins released, but exercise also reduces stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Just 20-30 minutes of vigorous movement each day can make a real difference – and the effects continue to be felt even hours later.
Exercise is also a powerful treatment for depression. The combination of exercise, followed by writing in a journal and then a small treat, like a nice cup of tea, is so successful that it is prescribed by therapists. One study also demonstrated exercise to be as effective as anti-depressants when treating depression. And there is evidence for a 20-30% reduction in depression in adults who do half an hour of daily exercise.
These effects are profoundly enhanced when you replace exercise with team sports, particularly when practiced outside. The connection with nature, and the sense of community that comes from playing with others have major, long-term impact on mental health. A study of 10,000 young people with PTSD found that those who regularly participated in team sports experienced much better mental wellbeing as adults. Researchers in Australia found that women who played netball had better mental health than those who worked out alone – even though there was no difference in their physical health. And two studies – in Norway and Korea, found that participation in team sports supported recovery from addiction.
Perhaps this is because we often play team sports for fun. Working out alone in the gym, while it can be satisfying, lacks the playful connection and collaborative satisfaction of team sports with others. And even solo sports, when explored for fun, in a group, without competition, can have the same effect – like swim clubs, or run clubs.
It's better together
Exercising together in green spaces also helps with self-esteem, self-confidence, and even cognitive function as you age. The physiological improvements associated with playing sport can be hugely empowering, and helps you feel more closely aligned with your own body.
So, the next time you feel stuck, disempowered, alienated – explore moving your body, even better if it’s with others. You might even drop into that feeling of flow – and the science shows the mental health benefits are endless. You can find Sport practices within the Light app.