Benefits of Sports for Mental Health

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on February 26, 2024
3 min read

Sports boost your overall health and offer other benefits. You might enjoy playing sports because you can spend time with your friends. Or maybe you like sports because they keep you fit. Sports benefit your mental health too. Playing them makes you happier or less stressed. 

Sports calm your mind, strengthen your muscles, and improve your overall well-being. It’s easy to start playing sports and receiving these benefits in your life. 

We all know that sports are great for your physical health. But sports also have many psychological benefits.

Help moderate stress. About 75% to 90% of doctor visits are for stress-related illnesses. Sports help you manage stress. Exercise causes your body to release endorphins, the chemicals in your brain that relieve pain and stress. It also reduces the levels of stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline.

Studies have shown that 20 to 30 minutes of exercise each day can make people feel calmer. This calmness continues several hours after exercise.

Improve your mood. Playing a sport such as golf or skiing forces you to put aside your worries and concentrate on the task at hand. This helps you clear your mind and calm down. It also helps you sleep better. 

Produce long-term mental health effects. Participation in sports can have long-term effects on your mental health. Researchers studied 9,688 children who had bad childhood experiences, such as physical and sexual abuse, or emotional neglect. They found that those children who took part in team sports had better mental well-being when they were adults.

Boost mental health with team sports. Taking part in sports in a group has a greater impact on mental health than individual sports. Researchers in Australia found that women who played tennis and netball in clubs had better mental health than those who exercised alone, like walking or working out at the gym. There were no differences in physical health between the two groups.

A study of teenage athletes found that those who played individual sports more likely reported experiencing anxiety and depression. This may be because those in team sports often play for fun. Individual sports don’t require another person to compete together and may make the athlete experience more stress than enjoyment. 

Help fight addiction. A study of Norwegian teenagers found that those who played in team sports were less likely to smoke cigarettes and use cannabis as adults. 

Researchers in Korea recommended the use of sports to help teens combat internet addiction.

Help with depression. Sports help treat depression. Studies show that exercise improves symptoms of depression and reduces the risk of relapse. Exercise was found to be as effective as standard antidepressant treatment in one study, with modest amounts of exercise helping to improve depression.

Improve serious mental disorders. Exercise can help if you have a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia. It improves some symptoms of schizophrenia, including loss of motivation and thinking difficulties, but is less effective with other symptoms like hallucinations.

While sports provide many benefits, they can have negative effects on the mental health of more advanced athletes, especially elite athletes. Elite athletes play at varsity, regional, national, or professional levels. 

Stress. While sports relieve stress, sometimes they create it. Parents or coaches may push children too hard. Older athletes may place pressure on themselves to perform well. This leads to burnout, which is when an athlete’s performance worsens despite intense training.

Depression. Many high-profile athletes struggle with mental health issues. Researchers say certain factors may increase the risk of depression among athletes. These include injury, retirement from the sport, and performance expectations. It’s also possible that there may be underreporting of depression among athletes.

Eating disorders. Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are a problem in sports. This is especially so in sports where weight affects performance, such as long-distance running, gymnastics, and ski jumping. Elite athletes may feel pressured to have the ideal body type for their sport or may fear going over their weight class in their sport. 

A study of Norwegian athletes found that 13.5% of elite athletes had eating disorders compared to 4.6% of those in the general population.