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World Mental Health Day | How Does Exercise Help With Mental Health?

Reviewed by
Date published
10/10/2021
Date last updated
22/09/2021
Length of read
6 Minutes

With the pressures and demands of the modern world continuously increasing, it’s now more important than ever to ensure we’re looking after our mental health. Physical activity doesn’t just improve the way in which our bodies work and function, but it also has a substantial influence on our psychological well being, too. Here are the ways to improve your mental health, and why keeping active is so important.

How Can Physical Activity Help Mental Health?

Physical activity has been proven to reduce our stress levels, decrease our anxiety and improve our self-esteem. This means exercise can not only help prevent the progression of mental health problems, but it can also improve the quality of life for those already suffering with mental health issues.

When we exercise, we release chemicals in the brain known as endorphins, which make us feel good and lift our spirits. Exercise also has the power to promote different changes in the brain, including reducing inflammation and creating activity patterns that promote the feeling of being calm. Here are just some of the ways in which exercise can help with mental health:

Depression

Exercise can be an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression, with studies showing that the physical activity can be just as effective as antidepressant medication. The benefit of exercise over medication is of course that exercise has no side-effects – a common issue for many who rely on regular prescriptions. Research has shown that running for just 15 minutes a day (or walking for one hour a day) can reduce the risk of major depression occurring by 26%, while alleviating the symptoms of it, too.

Stress

Stress affects most of us at some point in our lives, be it through work, family problems, financial issues or general environmental changes. Although a mental health problem, stress can have an impact on many different areas of our physical health too, including:

  • Headaches
  • Migraines
  • Stomach cramps
  • Nausea
  • Heart palpitations
  • Insomnia.

As a result of these symptoms, the stress that we feel can increase due to the discomfort and anxiety we experience when we’re feeling unwell. Not only does exercise help to relieve tension within the body and ease muscle pain, but it can also act as a great distraction to our stress, giving us the opportunity to focus our minds on something else for a while.

Cognitive Decline

Cognitive decline in older people can occur for a number of different reasons, including as a result of progressive diseases such as dementia. Physical activity has been proven to help delay further decline in functioning for those already suffering from dementia (and the main symptom of memory-loss), as well as act as a protective factor for those at risk of developing the condition. Research has shown that there’s an approximate 20% to 30% lower risk of adults developing depression and dementia in those who participate in daily physical activity.

Sleep

Lack of sleep can seriously take a toll on mental health, not only affecting how tired we feel but also our concentration, memory and energy levels. Short bursts of exercise in the morning and afternoon can not only help to regulate sleeping patterns and therefore promote more sleep, but can also result in feeling mentally sharp and energised – ready to take on the day ahead.

How Much Exercise Is Enough?

Many people get put off participating in exercise when they think they have to spend hours a day doing it, but there’s no need to devote your entire week to being active. Just 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise 5 times a week is enough to keep both your body and mind in good condition, but if that feels like too much, go at a steady pace that suits you and your lifestyle – anything is better than nothing.

Moderate levels of exercise, recommended for most people, refers to your body feeling warmer as you move around (but be careful not to get too overheated or too sweaty) and your breathing becoming a little heavier compared to how it normally is (make sure you’re not becoming out of breath – you should still be able to talk to your exercise partner).

Finding The Motivation To Move

If you already suffer from mental health problems, then it can be easier said than done to find the motivation to start exercising. Here’s some tips and tricks to get you more motivated to move:

Feel comfortable – always make sure you’re wearing comfortable and breathable clothing that you can easily move around in.

Make achievable goals – remember to be kind to yourself and avoid setting unrealistic targets that’ll only make you feel disappointed if you can’t reach them. Start small and build up to bigger goals.

Feel relaxed – not only should your clothes be comfortable, but you should feel relaxed in the environment you’re in, too. Remember that this won’t be the same for everybody, so don’t force yourself to work out in a busy gym if this isn’t a place you feel secure in.

Mix up your routine – exercise can soon become boring if you stick to the same routine every day. Take a new exercise class or get friends involved in a team sport.

Schedule your workouts - for when you feel the most energised. There’s no point planning to do your physical activity in the evening if you know you’ll be exhausted from working all day, so arrange your exercise plans around when you’ll be most motivated.