Exercise and Mental Health
The evidence for the positive effects of exercise on mental health is uncontested. This goes for all age groups and all kinds of physical activity.
Physical activity can boost self-esteem, improve sleep quality, increase energy and help prevent some forms of mental illness such as anxiety and depression. Exercise also stands up alongside psychotherapy and medication as a viable form of treatment for those with diagnosed mental health problems. Used either alone or as an adjunct to other treatments physical activity reduces symptoms and improves quality of life.
Here we’ll look at how and why exercise is beneficial to mental health as well as providing some tips for incorporating physical activity into your daily routine.
How Exercise Improves Mood
Brain chemistry – physical activity has a direct effect on brain activity and brain chemistry. The so called runners high describes the sense of well being experienced by those engaging in intense exercise. This includes feelings of euphoria and a reduction in anxiety (1).
Evolution – our ancestors led far more physically active and challenging lives than we do so moving our bodies brings us closer to the lives our bodies evolved to thrive on.
Stress symptoms – physical activity can mimic symptoms of stress such as sweating and increased heart rate but in a controlled way. Soon after exercise these symptoms dissipate leaving you in calm state. This can train the body to switch from one state to another.
A change is as good as a rest – exercise is a chance to break away from the daily grind of work, childcare and housework and to focus entirely on the physical body. This can transform how you feel when you go back to your tasks.
Satisfaction – making progress with your physical fitness gives a feeling of accomplishment. Whether you set yourself a goal or just notice improvements in your body exercise can be very rewarding.
Togetherness – any physical activity can be done with other people, be it walking, running, dancing or team sports. It’s known that social connections are good for mental health.
Being outdoors – exercise can be done outside with all the benefits that brings to mental health, especially if you go somewhere green. There is also the opportunity to up your vitamin D levels by exposing skin to sunlight.
See blog post on Walking for Wellness for how to incorporate walking into your life and the benefits that can bring. Whatever physical activities you decide to do here are some simple tips to help make them part of your regular routine:
- Factor in time for exercise – this might mean scheduling in regular exercise classes or gym sessions or it may mean setting off for work earlier so that you can walk or cycle rather than drive. Or it might mean shopping takes a bit longer if you do it on foot.
- Monitor your exercise – keep track of how much you do each day and gradually increase it. Using a pedometer, fitbit or heart rate monitor can help although these tools are not essential.
- Buddy up – doing exercise with someone else is a good way to make sure you do it as you won’t want to let down a friend.
- Use waiting time to exercise – do some squats or lunges while waiting for the kettle to boil or the toast to pop out of the toaster.
- Gamify exercise – some people are motivated by setting themselves challenges such as aiming for a certain number of steps or holding a plank for a certain amount of time. Get together with friends and family and set goals for each other.
- Focus on function – instead of focussing on weight and body shape notice how you feel during and after exercise. Aim to improve body function rather than your appearance.
- Allow time for rest and recovery – See blog post on Exercise and Recovery for a reminder of the importance of allowing time for rest and recuperation between exercise sessions.
1. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2021 Apr;126:105173. Exercise-induced euphoria and anxiolysis do not depend on endogenous opio