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Keeping Fit To Stay Sharp

Physical Activity Benefits Mental Wellness


  • Regular exercise has been linked to a reduced risk of depression and other mental health conditions, as well as an improvement in overall mood and well-being.
  • As there is no one-size-fits-all solution, the best thing to do is to set some fitness goals, and then find an activity you enjoy and can pursue regularly.
  • Employers also have a role to play in facilitating and encouraging physical activity for staff.

Some sports – like golf, for instance – are inextricably linked with working professionals and offer all manner of business opportunities such as networking and deal making. But a day out on the green with colleagues and business partners can also be good for one’s mental health. In fact, research has established that staying physically active has a strong positive impact on mental well-being and on workplace productivity. Of course, the physical benefits of staying active should be enough to motivate anyone, but throw in stress management and other mental health benefits and it becomes a no-brainer.

People in the workforce can find maintaining a healthy work-life balance challenging. “Physical activity is well recognised as a key factor for the prevention and management of mental illness, including mental disorders such as depression and anxiety as well as the promotion of mental health such as well-being,” according to a 2023 study published in BioMed Central. The constant pressure of meeting deadlines, long hours of sitting in front of a computer, and having to juggle various tasks can cause stress and anxiety, leading to poor mental health. This appears to be a mounting problem in Singapore, if global health service provider Cigna International’s latest 360 Well-Being report is anything to go by. Titled “Stressed in Singapore – Employer Opportunity”, it reveals that in Singapore, 86% of adults are stressed – well above the global average of 82%.

However, many years of research and not just the most recent data indicate that a physically active lifestyle can go a long way in alleviating the effects of stress, making it essential for workers to prioritise exercise in their daily routine. Here are just a few of the obvious benefits, starting with the most obvious.


Stress and anxiety are common mental health issues faced by all working professionals, at every age and every level. So, what can you do about it? As it turns out, quite a lot! And, you can start by just taking brisk walks.

“We saw a 26% decrease in odds for becoming depressed for each major increase in objectively measured physical activity,” says Karmel Choi, a clinical and research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and author of a 2019 study that was published in JAMA Psychiatry, on the Harvard Health Publishing website. “This increase in physical activity is what you might see on your activity tracker if you replaced one hour of sitting with one hour of moderate activity like brisk walking.”

Engaging in regular physical activity helps in reducing the production of stress hormones such as cortisol and increasing the production of endorphins – the feel-good chemicals that improve mood and promote a sense of well-being. Even moving around during the lunch break or doing some stretching exercises can help clear the mind and reduce stress levels.

Unsurprisingly, the symptoms of stress and a variety of anxiety disorders can be addressed with various forms of exercise. The Mayo Clinic goes so far as to suggest that any form of sustained and regular physical activity will do the trick. Below is a summary of the benefits the health institution has identified, aside from the endorphin boost typically referred to as a “runner’s high”.

  • Building resilience. Counter-intuitively, some forms of exercise imitate the effects of stress, inducing the fight-or-flight response. This can be a form of training to help the body work through the same effects. It can also lead to positive effects in the body, including the cardiovascular, digestive and immune systems, by helping protect the body from the harmful effects of stress.
  • Strength in focus. Concentrating on returning a powerful serve in tennis has the same effect as looking for a secure handhold (or foothold) while rock climbing – nothing else exists in those moments except the immediate goal. The same is true of various martial arts, running and also swimming laps in a pool. “As you begin to regularly shed your daily tensions through movement and physical activity, you may find that this focus on a single task, and the resulting energy and optimism, can help you stay calm, clear and focused in everything you do,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
  • Mood enhancer. Any kind of regular physical activity can boost self-confidence, lighten mood, enhance relaxation, and reduce symptoms of mild depression and anxiety. Sleep disruption can also be alleviated by exercise. (Sleep is often negatively impacted by stress, anxiety and depression.) “All of these exercise benefits can ease your stress levels and give you a sense of command over your body and your life.”


There is plenty of scientific and anecdotal evidence that physical activity has a positive impact on the brain, helping to improve one’s cognitive function, memory, and concentration. Exercise has been demonstrated to increase blood flow to the brain, which helps to promote the growth of new brain cells and improve overall brain health.

Thus, people who engage in some sort of regular physical activity may find themselves more focused and productive at work, improving their overall job performance. The exact types of activities and what regularity means will of course differ, depending on a variety of factors, but this is something everyone should research. There is no one sport or even one type of exercise that will work for everyone. Older adults should also take note that exercise can slow cognitive decline, among other benefits.


Physical activity has long-term mental health benefits that go beyond spiking one’s endorphins. Regular exercise has been linked to a reduced risk of depression and other deleterious mental health conditions, as well as an improvement in overall mood and well-being. This means that working professionals who engage in regular physical activity may experience fewer mental health issues and enjoy better mental health in the long term. “I have found that a tranquil setting for walking soothes the spirit and calms the nerves, inducing a sense of quiet in the mind and in the body,” wrote Chan Lishan for Singapore’s Institute of Mental Health. “During my walks, I forget about the stresses of life and simply focus on immersing myself in nature, connecting with the universe.”

Even though there have been many studies and years of research, no causal link has been established between an active lifestyle and good mental health. “Despite this, lower stress levels may mean a person is less likely to experience certain health problems,” according to Medical News Today. “Older research from 2013 notes that 75–90% of visits to a primary care doctor are for stress-related conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, sleep problems, headaches, immune system suppression, and neck and back pain.”


Nevertheless, there are several success stories of working professionals who have found relief from mental health issues through physical activity, including from the Mayo Clinic in the US. For instance, a sales executive, who suffered from depression, found that running outdoors helped improve his mood and made him feel more positive. Another individual found that regular yoga sessions helped her to manage her anxiety and improve her overall psychological state. These examples may read like bullet points in a generic mental health pamphlet, but a simple Internet search will reveal many such stories. Indeed, the examples in this article have been averaged out from a variety of different sources culled from studies done over multiple years.

As noted earlier, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, so the best thing to do is to set some fitness goals and then find an activity you enjoy. There is no point in deciding to cycle to work every day if you do not like cycling! On the other hand, even if you enjoy running, your physical state might prevent you from reaping the best results. It goes without saying that you should not only tailor your physical activities to your schedule but also build them around any injuries you might have. Remember that taking long walks count as physical activity, as far as getting psychological benefits go, and you can break this up into shorter stretches throughout the day. The most important thing is to make some sort of physical activity a part of the daily routine and to stay consistent with it.


Employers have a role to play in facilitating and encouraging physical activity among staff to reap the benefits and, for certain, promoting good mental health should be added to the list.

In the past, Japanese companies became famous worldwide for their fastidious morning exercise rituals and, more recently, progressive employers such as Alphabet and Meta have included spaces for physical activity on-premises. In Singapore, the Health Promotion Board is encouraging workplace wellness through a slew of programmes featuring exercise sessions, healthier food options, health talks and workshops, and health screenings, which take place close to or at the office premises, the latter with prior arrangement. Many of these activities are co-funded or even free.

Employers looking to have happier, healthier and a more productive workforce do not have to look far for inspiration or assistance. But they do need to take the first step by establishing a culture which supports the pursuit of physical activities.

Personal Development and Wellness
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