By Brad Bowins, MD, FRCP(C)
Mental illness exerts a heavy toll on society, but only receives a fraction of the funding that physical illness does. There is a universal need for beneficial and cost-effective interventions for mental illness. But what might qualify as an option?
One possible answer is activity! As a psychiatrist treating a wide range of conditions, I have seen first-hand the benefit of activity and routinely apply it to clients, both in terms of recommending activity of various forms and formal behavioral activation treatment (BAT).
In the realm of physical health, physical activity is well established. But the notion of activity for mental health is still developing. This is why I researched the spectrum of activity to uncover the reasons why activity is so beneficial to mental health. The resulting book, “Activity For Mental Health,” explores activity in general, as well as specific forms — physical, social, nature, cognitive, art/hobby and music.
One key reason why activity in general improves mental health is due to human evolution. In contrast to our primate relatives, humans had to be active in order to search for food, water, safe resting sites and other valuable resources. In other words, we evolved to be active and this is expressed in our requirements for health.
Another reason is the importance of having a positive focus. Negative distractions are ever-present and weigh us down psychologically. However, being absorbed into a positive focus, such as an activity, has the potential to remove a person, or distract, from negativity.
Beyond the benefits of activity in general on mental health, physical, social, nature, cognitive, art/hobby and music activity each have their own unique impact. In this day and age of evidence-based interventions, it is important to establish to what extent the various forms of activity both treat mental illness and promote mental health in the general population.
Here is a brief overview of why each form of activity is beneficial for mental health.
Various forms of research conclusively demonstrate that physical activity advances mental health. It can improve self-image on a psychological level, and on a biological level, it increases blood flow to the brain and helps the growth and survival of neurons.
Humans evolved in hunting-gathering groups, instilling a social brain. This is in contrast to tigers, for instance, that are quite fine on their own. We require social contact, and in a world that is becoming more and more socially fragmented, isolation and loneliness can contribute to mental illness. However, you can bolster your mental health with social and emotional support.
Given the beauty and serenity of natural settings it makes sense that nature is beneficial for mental health. Nature activity works because it induces relaxation responses thereby reducing stress responses. Several features of natural settings, such as smooth and round contours and saturated colors, seem to help the brain reduce stress and feel calm.
Although it would seem that mental activity can improve a person’s mood, very little research focuses on this theory. And for the research that has, most addresses the impact of cognitive activity on cognitive functioning, such as in schizophrenia. However, one clear outcome is that cognitive activity does improve cognitive health.
Many people, particularly those with mental illness, can benefit from developing a hobby. Research demonstrates how such activity may both contribute to the treatment of mental illness and improve mental health in the general population. For example, hobbies can help a person to feel empowered and motivated.
This form of activity might seem to fit into the art/hobby category, but it is very distinct due to the way that it connects with emotions. In addition, music appears to activate and stimulate many brain regions. When combined with regular treatment, music therapy has even been shown to reduce symptoms of depression and anxietycompared to treatment alone.
Activity, including the specific forms of physical, social, nature, cognitive, art/hobby and music, represents a robust, cost-effective and easily accessible mental health intervention for both people with existing mental health conditions and those who are looking to improve their overall mental well-being.
Dr. Bowins is a psychiatrist, researcher and founder of The Centre For Theoretical Research In Psychiatry & Clinical Psychology (psychiatrytheory.com). His research and writings challenge the status quo, fostering paradigm shifts crucial to the advancement of science and knowledge. Several theoretical perspectives, presented in peer-reviewed papers and “Mental Illness Defined: Continuums, Regulation, And Defense,” have advanced the way key aspects of mental illness are understood, including psychological defense mechanisms, psychosis and schizophrenia, hypomania, continuums, regulation, personality disorders, repetitive maladaptive behavior and dissociation.
We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.
Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.
Call the NAMI Helpline at
In a crisis,
Find Your Local NAMI