Why exercise is good for your mental health and wellbeing

Did you know that exercise can be a better anti-depressant than medication? Whether you’re experiencing a low mood or ongoing symptoms of stress or depression, getting sporty can really help

Woman out for a morning run

These days we are becoming increasingly aware that regular exercise is every bit as important for our mental wellbeing as it is for our physical health. Regardless of our age or fitness level, studies show that making time for exercise provides us with some significant mental health benefits. ‘Making time’ isn’t always easy in our busy, fast-paced lives but a deeper understanding of the benefits of regular exercise can help to motivate us to develop a regular routine.

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When we exercise we stimulate certain areas in our brain, releasing chemicals that affect how we feel. These effects can last for several hours after a workout, and noticeable improvements in our mood can be seen after as little as 10-20 minutes of physical activity. You may well have heard of the ‘runner’s high’. Physical activity improves your body’s ability to use oxygen and your blood flow, which scientists believe may improve overall brain function.

Exercise also increases your brain’s production of endorphins. These chemical messengers promote the sense of euphoria that we can experience after exercise; and these endorphins have the added benefit of helping to relieve pain and stress.

As we exercise we also stimulate a number of other neurotransmitters – chemical messengers which send information from one cell to another – these include dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. They all play key roles in boosting our mood and tackling stress. For example, when dopamine is released in large amounts, it creates feelings of pleasure and reward. It also has a very motivating and uplifting effect. Serotonin, another neurotransmitter, is widely known to be a good mood booster but it can also help to promote healthy sleeping patterns as it is converted into melatonin – our sleep hormone.

If you are feeling particularly stressed, the good news is that regular exercise helps us manage stress more effectively. When we are under a lot of pressure we produce more adrenaline and cortisol. Exercise increases concentrations of norepinephrine, a chemical that can moderate the brain’s response to stress, helping you to cope better.

Many people find that exercise also helps with relieving tension, anxiety and negative thoughts. By focusing on your workout, it can help take your mind off your worries and promote a greater sense of calmness. Exercise is also a great way to boost confidence levels and improve your own self-image. Regardless of your weight or age, exercise can quickly improve your own perception of your body.

Working to an exercise plan and seeing improvements in your performance will grow your self-esteem and it can give you a greater sense of control over your body. Finding time (and motivating ourselves) to exercise regularly can feel difficult. One approach some find effective is to book exercise into your diary as an appointment. Research has shown that workers who take time for exercise on a regular basis are actually more productive and have more energy than their more sedentary peers. So even if you have a busy schedule, it makes sense to factor in a workout – this could be a gym session, a lunchtime walk or cycling to work.

It’s also been shown that we are much more likely to stick with an exercise routine if we do it with a friend. Arranging to meet a friend for a walk or bike ride, or booking an exercise class together, creates a commitment that we’re more likely to keep. Not wanting to let a friend down can be a great motivator to show up. And, on those days when you’re just not feeling it (we all have them), a pep talk from your friend can be the support you need. A 2009 study by University College London found that, on average, it takes 66 days to change or form a new habit – so stick with it! As exercising becomes part of your day-to-day routine, maintaining your commitment will get easier.

Woman out jogging in the morning
Unsplash/Andrew Tanglao

5 physical and mental benefits of exercise

1

Enjoy the outdoors

For an extra mood boost take your workout outside. Being surrounded by nature, switching off from electronics and social media is a perfect way to de-stress. Plus, the extra Vitamin D from the sun can reduce depressive symptoms too.

2

Get social

Another bonus, exercise can be a great way to build up a social network. Taking a gym class, joining a sports group or running club are all good ways to meet new people and build new friendships. Going for a walk with a family member is an ideal time to catch up. By planning exercise meet-ups or classes, you can keep yourself motivated. Studies show that people generally perform better on aerobic exercises when paired up with a friend.

3

Tackle anxiety

If you’re feeling anxious take yourself for a quick run. Studies have shown that taking part in some moderate-to-high intensity aerobic exercise (such as interval training, circuits, running or cycling) can reduce anxiety and boost overall mood.

4

Enjoy clearer thinking

Exercise also activates a part of your brain called the ventral prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making and emotions. When you start to exercise regularly you may notice an improvement in thinking and clarity of thought.

5

Improve your sleep

Getting quality sleep goes hand in hand with tackling stress and depression. The good news is that studies have shown that aerobic exercise can improve sleeping patterns, even for people with insomnia. Aim to exercise during the morning or afternoon rather than late evening as this could actually keep you from sleeping.

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Main image by Emma Simpson.

This article was first published in In The Moment Magazine issue 23. Discover our latest subscription offers or order a back issue.