Sport’s important role in mental health: “Mood improves and cognitive decline slows down”


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Sport’s impact on mental health is nothing new. The subject is increasingly covered in the media and highlighted by sports lovers and the general public. While the topic is now treated with greater sensitivity, mental health remains a taboo.

Sport positively impacts practitioners’ lives, and this goes far beyond physical benefits like weight loss or body toning. We talked to sports psychologists José García Donate (Spain) and Ana Sofia Rodrigues (Portugal) about the importance of sport for athletes’ mental health.


The benefits of exercise for the mind

Psychologist José García Donate highlights how practising sport provides mental benefits. These gains are mainly cognitive, enhancing learning abilities, concentration, and mood.

“It’s been proven that after prolonged exercise, creative ability increases, learning capacity is enhanced, mood improves, and cognitive decline slows down. Generally speaking, I don’t think society at large is as aware of all these benefits as, say, people are of weight loss. I think everyone knows sport is good for that. But in terms of preventing certain psychological diseases or disorders, like depression or anxiety, sport’s role is not so well known.”

Ana Sofia Rodrigues adds that “it’s not a coincidence that many folks train before work, precisely to activate cognitive function. However, she also mentions that some people prefer to work out after leaving the office. The psychologist believes that the goal here is to “relax and slow down, because physical exercise plays a major role in producing happiness and well-being enhancing hormones.”

Donate highlights that there is evidence that sport serves as a “barrier” to disorders such as “anxiety and depression,” and creates positive changes in self-esteem and socialisation – “(…) ultimately, sport offers a series of goals, which you must achieve. What’s more, on a social level, you meet more people, because you have friends in the gym or your sports team. This always boosts self-esteem and confidence.” He adds that people with acute psychological problems, in therapy, if they have a prescribed physical activity programme, get better results than those who don’t. Physical activity has even been shown to have better results than medication for treating depression, which is impressive.”


When is exercise not enough?

Exercise alone does not guarantee mental well-being. Rodrigues emphasises that not all cases are equal, so sport doesn’t always do the trick. While it works as an “antidepressant” for many, some people require medical assistance, which exercise doesn’t replace, but only complements – It’s very important for people to realise that they can’t replace the medication prescribed by the psychiatrist with exercise, because it certainly won’t have the same impact and intention in the treatment process.”

Donate shares this view, adding that no two people and treatments are the same, exercise cannot be proposed as therapy without analysing the whole situation. “The benefits that physical activity offers outweigh medication, even after only one session. Of course, it depends on the person, their age… You can’t suggest the same exercises for a 60-year-old that you would for a 30-year-old.”


Negative effects of sport: no pain, no gain?

Physical exercise doesn’t always provide benefits. When something is wrong, the signs are clear. This starts with not wanting to “listen to the body.” Donate makes the point that when it’s more than a muscle injury, “you’re also apathetic or anxious, yet you want to continue training, because you don’t care; it’s as if you want to drop everything for the sake of sport,” this is a sign that something is not right.

Furthermore, Donate warns about the social and family issues, when sports become more important than family, friends or even work, adding that it’s not actually very different from other kinds of addiction.”

Donate adds that, based on his experience, sports addiction manifests itself in different ways when looking at professional and non-professional athletes. “With pros, I’ve seen that the sports identity becomes too entrenched. They are people who build their identity through sport and when they don’t have sport, because they get injured or leave, they don’t know who they are, also mentioning that elite athletes already have deep-rooted rest habits. “They don’t know how to differentiate between their individual, personal identity and their sporting identity.”

Such situations often require professional help to improve things. A psychologist, or even a psychiatrist, will provide the most appropriate counselling and follow-up to navigate the negative side of playing sports.


“However, the positives outweigh everything else”

Maroussia Paré is a top-level French athlete and has competed since her teenage years. Having notched up two Olympic Games (Rio and Tokyo) and several European and World Championships, she has an expert’s view of sport’s positive and negative aspects. Currently part of the senior French athletics team, the Olympian accepts that she must push her body to the limit.

“High-level sports are somewhat of a separate situation. In all sports, anything excessive isn’t a good thing. However, we don’t think about being ‘excessive’, and become dependent on sport. However, this isn’t the case for top-level competitors. It’s different. That said, nothing stops us from constantly pushing our body and mind to the limit. Sometimes we don’t reap the rewards of our efforts. This can be extremely destabilising, frustrating, painful, and disappointing. For example, we might get sick, pick up repeated injuries or even have personal problems, etc.”


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Uma publicação partilhada por Maroussia Paré (@maaroussia)

She does believe, however, that despite there are many bad times, the good ones are better and make sport worthwhile. “If we weigh up the positives and the negatives, there are actually more negatives. That’s the way it is. But what about the positives? When we look at the positive aspects, they far outweigh the negatives. We’re intelligent people. I wouldn’t change my current life for anything in the world, even if I’ve faced extremely challenging times. I wouldn’t change it for anything. These moments are incredible, even though it can be painful. It’s amazing to see, when things go well, how we were able to turn it around and pull through. This means there are negatives, indeed quite a lot of bad times as top-level athletes are well aware. However, the positives always outweigh everything else!


It’s necessary to find a balance that enables athletes – professionals and amateurs alike – to enjoy physical activity, at the gym, a club or outdoors. The goal is for sport to promote a healthier life in every area, and to never result in situations of physical and psychological discomfort.


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