The many reasons that movement is good for the body are well documented and understood, but did you know that movement also has a beneficial impact on our brain and mental health too?

Like with most things, the reason lies with our human ancestors.

Whilst we can’t possibly know exactly what life was like for our human ancestors, there are a few things that we do know:


  • We know that they evolved from moving on four legs to two legs in order to move more efficiently
  • We know that they had to hunt for their own food and that life was dangerous for them
  • We know that they used their innate understanding of what they needed to do to survive, in order to survive
  • We also know that when they carried out certain evolutionary processes, like hunting and gathering, or fleeing from, or fighting predators, they received a reward.

That reward was a chemical response in the brain that produces various neurotransmitters (like Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin and Endorphins – read about these here), that made them feel good and enabled them to take the necessary action to protect themselves and their family.

Things have changed a bit haven’t they?

Today, movement is no longer necessary for us to do the things we need to do in order to survive.

But sedentary behaviour is not just due to reduced physical activity. Sedentary behaviour is due to a group of individual modern day behaviours whereby sitting or lying is our dominant posture, creating very low energy expenditure, and these behaviours are linked to work, school, home, being in transit and our leisure time.

The modern world

In the modern world, much of our days are spent in front of a computer screen: whether that’s picking up our phone upon waking, sitting at a desk, or driving with the use of a satnav.

We can achieve most things with the flick of a switch, the swipe of a screen or even the sound of our voice.

We have the ability, using our screens, to order hot food to be delivered straight to our door, taking away the need to shop for it, carry it, load it in and out of the car, unpack it at home and then prepare it, as well as the social interaction of cooking with a partner, friend or children.

Many of us choose to shop online for clothing and other things too, perhaps because of greater choice, for ease of time, or simply because we can’t be bothered to walk the length and breadth of the supermarkets or shopping malls.

It’s become a popular family pastime to indulge in a boxset of an evening, and we don’t even have to get up to change the volume, because the remote control is in easy reach.  Even switching lights on and off can be automatic now.

We can sit down all night because many of us don’t have to wash the dishes, with the use of dishwashers, or wash our clothes by hand, because we have washing machines.

We have less and less need to walk places

With public transport and cars to drive to work, we needn’t walk to get places, in fact many of us now have a camera in our car, removing the need to even turn our head to reverse!

As we are hard wired for convenience, it’s no surprise that we’ve used technology to make things easier for ourselves, but the reality is that this embrace of convenience has resulted in us out manoeuvring movement in our lives.

So how does this affect mental health?

This sedentary behaviour has all sorts of implications for our mental health:

  • The first is increased stress levels

Sedentary behaviours can increase our feeling of stress, because a lack of movement results in tension: in our head, neck, back and shoulders, and in our muscles in general.  When we don’t move, we generally feel stiffer, or achier and more lethargic and this effects many things, including our sleep, which, in itself, can lead to increased anxiety.

Many studies, including one carried out by the British Journal of Sports Medicine, have shown that sedentary behaviour is associated with an increased risk of depression.

  • The second is poor eating habits

Ironically, when our body is less active, we feel more lethargic generally and this can result in poor food choices.  We might reach for foods that are high in sugars, in an attempt to feel more energised.  We might reach for more processed foods because they are more convenient  We might reach for unhealthy fats, because they feel like a comfort fix. 

However, the reality is that these types of foods fail to feed our body or brain what they need to function at their optimum.  Instead, they result in fluctuating blood sugars, which perpetuates the lethargy cycle, and when we do this repeatedly, it can lead to increased weight which affects our energy levels negatively and impedes on our movement, creating a negative cycle.

  • The third is poor posture

Spinal alignment is crucial for many essential health functions, including our breathing, our digestion, our flexibility and mobility, as well as and our clarity and focus.  When we are sedentary for long periods, we often adopt postural positions that do not support these functions.  

We’ve all had that experience where we’ve been sat for a long time and become aware that we are not sat upright, with our head aligned with the top of our spine.  Instead, we might be leant forward, which puts pressure on the neck muscles and causes the shoulder tension that a lot of us experience.  These postures can also suppress our digestive organs and our even pelvic floor and it’s positioning.  They can also impede our brains ability to function normally, affecting mental health aspects like our ability to think and focus and be creative and problem solve.

  • The fourth is generalised apathy

We often find the less active we are the less active we are inclined to be and this can be a difficult cycle to break – until we break it!  General apathy can then transcend physical activity into any activity, potentially resulting in a reduction in our sense of direction and purpose, which are two characteristics of depression.

  • The fifth is poor sleep

When our stress levels are raised, our diet is high in sugars and stimulants, our muscles are tense and we feel apathetic, our sleep is likely to be impacted. You may already understand, the importance of sleep when it comes to our mental health, but in summary, when we don’t get good sleep in terms of both the quality and duration, it can start to impact normal functioning on every level. (You can read more about why we sleep here.)

We know that movement has a positive effect on sleep, because it not only helps us fall asleep more quickly, but moderate activity increases the amount of slow wave sleep we get, which is the deep sleep state that our body and brain need in order to rejuvenate.

In Summary

For the majority of people our day to day lives have becoming increasingly sedentary. We no longer need to move in order to survive in the same way that our ancestors did, and with the wonders of modern technologies and conveniences we no longer need to move as much as even the previous generation did to complete the activities of our day to day lives. 

This lack of movement has been shown to impact many areas of both our physical and mental health, negatively, including: increasing anxiety, apathy and the risk of depression, as well as inhibiting our ability to get a good night’s sleep. 

You can read more about the mental health benefits of movement here.  

Would you or your team, benefit from learning more about the impact of physical activity on mental wellbeing and resilience?

Our two hour course, Physical Activity for enhanced Resilience, explores this topic further, looking at the importance of physical activity for our wellbeing and the impact it has on our mental health.

The course also provides participants with the tools and knowledge to review their own physical activity status and habits, and create a plan to confidently improvement their level of physical activity and to enhance their personal resilience and performance. 

Physical Activity for
enhanced resilience

Resilience Awareness Training


To find out how we can support you with raising mental health awareness in your organisation, or to discuss your requirements, get in touch.

Visit the HSE website for current news about mental health.

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