Times are certainly tough at the moment, lockdown after lockdown is taking its toll and many of us are facing increased daily struggles with our mental health as a result. This is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of and while we should all be checking in with our friends, we also need to focus on our own mental health, including going to the doctors if necessary.
One of the most effective ways we can improve our own wellbeing is through exercise and physical activity. While exercise is of course great for your physical wellbeing, it also works wonders for your mental wellbeing. Now we’re not saying that you should instantly start running 5ks (you can if you want) – even a short, brisk walk can enhance many aspects of your mental wellbeing (1).
How Can Exercise Help Your Mental Health?
It Makes You Feel Good!
Exercising increases the production of endorphins, dopamine and adrenaline which are all chemicals that your brain associates with reduced feelings of stress and anxiety, while promoting feelings of happiness and confidence. With this, exercise has also been shown to increase self-esteem & self-body image! (2)
Leads to Better Sleep
Often suggested as a therapy method for those who struggle to sleep, exercise is great for promoting sleep quality (3). Sleep disturbances can magnify symptoms of depression and anxiety so it is extremely important to be getting high quality sleep and exercise helps with this by increasing the amount of time you spend in deep sleep.
Increases Energy Levels
Exercise will make me feel tired all day though right? Wrong. Obviously you will feed tired immediately after an intense period of activity, but exercise is associated with reduced feelings of fatigue. Actually, those that exercise typically report an increase in self perceived energy levels, even after just one 10 minute walk! (4)
Improves Brain Function
Another helpful effect of exercise is that it enhances your cognitive ability (5). Physical activity increases your alertness and concentration but also reduces feelings of restlessness and irritability. What’s more, exercise builds mental resilience that can be transferred into other challenging aspects of life.
How do I Get Started?
While single bouts of exercise can help improve your mental wellbeing, the most positive benefits stem from long term exercise. So once you get started, you want to be able to stick with it for effective therapy.
Pick Something You Enjoy
As with most things, if you pick something you hate you’ll most likely quit before long. Instead, think about activities you’ve previously enjoyed like going for morning walks / runs for example and do this regularly. This will form the foundations of a new healthy habit and you will be much more likely to continue with exercise in the long term.
Analyse Your Barriers
Perhaps there is a reason that you haven’t been exercising previously, feeling self-conscious for example. If so, you could workout from home or go out when its quieter – identifying these barriers to exercise makes it easier to find solutions to overcome them.
Remember Why You’re Exercising
You’re not training for the Olympics so please do not worry if you don’t think you’re working especially hard. The act of doing the exercise will elicit these positive mental responses and you can increase the difficulty as and when you want!
Although it might be difficult, try not to see exercise as a chore that you ‘should’ do. Instead, try to see it as any other therapy tool to improve your mental wellbeing.
Be Realistic & Prepare for Setbacks
Lets be honest, if you live a busy life or are not one for usually exercising, you’re not going fit in 6 sessions every week! Setting unrealistic targets is going to set you up for failure and may even have a detrimental effect on your mental health, start small and build up if you have the capacity.
That being said, do prepare yourself for the odd setback. Nobody is perfect and we all slip from time to time, but when slips do happen try to stay positive – it doesn’t mean that you can’t do it and should quit.
The Take Home Message
Exercise is one of the best tools for tackling mental health struggles and it literally has hundreds of benefits, both physical and mental. You don’t have to be sweating it out in the gym to alleviate symptoms of mental health struggles, just get moving and do activities you enjoy to reap the rewards!
- Kelly, P., Williamson, C., Niven, A.G., Hunter, R., Mutrie, N. and Richards, J., 2018. Walking on sunshine: scoping review of the evidence for walking and mental health. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 52(12), pp.800-806.
- Fox, K.R., 2000. Self-esteem, self-perceptions and exercise. International journal of sport psychology, 31(2), pp.228-240.
- Uchida, S., Shioda, K., Morita, Y., Kubota, C., Ganeko, M. and Takeda, N., 2012. Exercise effects on sleep physiology. Frontiers in neurology, 3, p.48.
- Loy, B.D., O’Connor, P.J. and Dishman, R.K., 2013. The effect of a single bout of exercise on energy and fatigue states: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Fatigue: Biomedicine, Health & Behavior, 1(4), pp.223-242.
- Kashihara, K., Maruyama, T., Murota, M. and Nakahara, Y., 2009. Positive effects of acute and moderate physical exercise on cognitive function. Journal of physiological anthropology, 28(4), pp.155-164.