Man swims in a pool near the ocean

Public health campaigns promoting the long-term rewards of the significantly reducing the risk of diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, arthritis and dementia have failed to motivate us to get active.

According to the latest Australian Health Tracker to be released shortly, physical activity levels remain low. Only 19.3% of Australian children and less than half of adults meet physical activity guidelines, as a result, preventable chronic illness is rising.

The human psyche responds to immediate reward and the long-term physical health benefits of exercise - often years away - have failed to motivate us to move.

Switching our public messaging and campaigns to mental health and social benefits of physical activity, may help motivate people into action. A focus on feeling good, enjoyment, managing daily stress, a sense of achievement, the opportunity to socialise with friends or spend time with family are likely to be more motivating for most people.

The importance of getting people moving from a mental health perspective has never been more critical. Australia’s Mental and Physical Health Tracker shows that four million Australians are currently living with a mental illness, with depression and anxiety making up more than half of these conditions. An overwhelming amount of research evidence shows that physical activity can be a key to the prevention as well as treatment for mental illness, particularly depression.

Physical activity significantly reduces the risk of developing mental ill-health.

Even low levels of activity is protective with research showing that people who engage in physical activity for an average of 17 minutes a day are 63% less likely to develop depression compared to those who do not engage in physical activity.

The mental health rewards from being active can be immediate. Physical activity provides opportunities to enhance self-confidence, a sense of achievement, and resilience. With the immediate benefit of ‘feeling good’ or experiencing enjoyment, physical activity can improve wellbeing and reduce negative mood. All of these contribute to positive mental health.

Physical activity also fosters broader wellbeing through social support, social inclusion and community development, key elements that protect against mental illness. Volunteer organised community events, such as the ParkRun - where people join up to run around a local park, can improve social connections and provide an opportunity for volunteers to contribute to their community while benefiting their health and fitness.

Not all types of physical activity are equally beneficial for mental health. Physical activity during spare time is beneficial, however, occupational physical activity and house work do not appear to benefit mental health.

People are more likely to engage in physical activity if they enjoy it. Emerging evidence suggests people are more likely to enjoy exercise that they self-select the level of intensity, rather than when they are given a prescribed level of intensity and that people tend to enjoy outdoor activity more than being active indoors. This has implications for the development of physical activity programs and guidelines, which often prescribe intensity levels; and for the design of our communities and accessibility of our local, state and national parks.

Investing in physical activity campaigns doesn’t only make health sense but financial sense.

Mental and behavioural disorders are the largest contributor (23.6%) of the non-fatal burden of disease, costing Australia $60 billion a year in health cost and loss of productivity.

Public campaigns that focus on enjoyment and feeling good are likely to encourage more people to participate in physical activity, while leading to even greater mental health benefits.

Associate Professor Melinda Craike from Victoria University's Mitchell Institute and Professor Alexandra Parker from Victoria University's Institute for Health and Sport.

First published in the Canberra Times