Workplace Health: Linking Physical Activity and Mental Health

Does physical health affect mental health? The short answer is a resounding yes. According to Harvard Medical School, exercise is an all-natural treatment to fight depression and is as effective as antidepressants in some cases. In the United States, one in 10 adults struggles with depression, and antidepressants are commonly prescribed. However, there is a relationship between physical activity and mental health. By adding exercise into your routine, it could effectively treat your depression, even if you are already taking anti-depressants. Exercise and medication are often recommended together to treat depression or other mental health issues. There is no one size fits all cure for mental illness but at the same time, exercise is beneficial for all of us, especially those of us who have mental health issues. 

The Link Between Physical Activity and Mental Health

Exercise changes the body in some big ways and starts a beneficial cascade of biological functions that have health-related benefits, like warding off heart disease and diabetes, having better sleep, and reducing blood pressure. When you exercise at a high intensity, such as with running or cycling, your body releases endorphins, which are chemicals that make you feel good. However, the real health value comes from the sustaining of low-intensity exercise over time. An activity like this increases the release of proteins called growth factors, which help nerve cells make new connections and increase their growth. This improves brain function, which helps someone with a mental illness feel better. You can see the changes in their brains. People who suffer from depression tend to have a smaller hippocampus (a part of the brain). Exercise encourages this area of the brain to grow and function normally, which supports mental health. 

How to Encourage Fitness and Activity in the Workplace

Supporting fitness and activity in the workplace might be a lot easier than you’re thinking. According to Aflac insurance, 53% of employees would participate in an exercise program through their workplace. And of those that participate, 70% report higher job satisfaction according to Corporate Wellness Magazine. With higher job satisfaction comes better performance and higher company loyalty. This is evidenced by this statistic from the American Psychological Association: 91% of workers at companies led by leaders that support well-being efforts say they feel motivated to do their best at their jobs. 

However, when it comes to mental illness, motivating those in your workplace who suffer from a mental illness can be challenging. Depression and other mental illnesses are difficult diseases that defy logic and reason. Although many depressed people might know that exercise is good for them, they may still be unable to get started. And, many physical symptoms come with depression that makes it difficult to exercise like interrupted sleep, reduced energy, appetite changes, and body aches. So, while it might be challenging, there is a lot of good to come from a workplace emphasis on fitness to support mental health. Having outside support and the benefits of teamwork and camaraderie could help people overcome their inner barriers to exercise. 

Encourage people to start small. This blanket permission will help someone struggling with mental illness take that first small step. And the long-term goal is consistency, even if it’s a small amount of exercise. Starting with five minutes a day and then slowly increasing is an effective way to start an exercise routine. The mental health benefits of exercise are seen after a few weeks and are a long-term treatment. So, choosing exercises that a person likes will make it easier to sustain over the long run. 

Fitness also offers benefits to employees without mental health issues. Staying physically fit lowers the risks of many diseases and supports mental energy and function, which we all need more of these days. By supporting fitness at work, you’ll optimize organizational performance by measurably improving the health and wellness of your employees.

Here are some ways to encourage fitness at work.

  • Use a Wellness Challenge

Wellness challenges are a fun and engaging way to positively impact employee health and morale. Wellness challenges are a good way to start creating a healthy, active work culture at your workplace. There are an almost endless variety of wellness challenges possible. Ideas include:

  1. Step or walking challenges

  2. Weight loss contests

  3. Holiday weight challenge

  4. BMI improvement challenge

  5. Daily habit challenge

  6. Gym time challenge

  7. Plank Contest

  8. Field Days


  • Hold Walking Meetings

These are growing in popularity, despite how odd they must sound at first. Walking meetings allow for people to get some movement in their day without having to stop working. It also creates a culture of fitness and shows how much your company values health. 

  • Support more movement

Exercise isn’t the only beneficial physical activity. Simply moving more through the day can increase circulation and build muscle. And, it is a step forward from more sedentary habits to more active ones. Include increasing general movement like taking the stairs or parking further away from the store as part of any fitness goals or challenges. 

  • Offer discounts on gym membership, or free memberships 

Many gyms will work with employers to offer a discounted membership to their employees. This is a tangible way to support employee fitness since it removes some of the financial barriers to working out at a gym. Paying for membership in full is a sound investment in lowering the healthcare costs your organization will face over the long term. And, employees who are physically fit will have more energy and concentration, making them more profitable.

  • Encourage reasonable goals

Emphasize during any fitness education sessions that fitness goals are unique and that the best exercises are the ones is suited to each person. Encourage your employees to set personalized, reasonable goals. This sets them up for success and prevents self-comparison and unhealthy competition.  

  • Host a Fitness Education Day

Hire a personal trainer or another fitness expert to come into the office and demonstrate different kinds of exercises. Then, employees can try new kinds of exercise in a low-pressure environment. They might find a style that fits their needs this way. Variety is key when it comes to a successful exercise routine, so these demonstrations will also be helpful for those who already have a regular workout routine. 


BHS: Your Partner in Improving Staff’s Physical and Mental Health

We here at BioFunctional Health Solutions (BHS) are experts in helping workplaces like yours adopt healthy habits while creating a healthier culture all around. Our clients improve their bottom line by reducing healthcare costs and improving employee performance through our wellness programs. We support your employees in creating healthier habits through education as well as activities like wellness challenges. To start saving money and improve employee productivity, reach out to us today. 

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