The Mental Benefits of Exercise
Exercise has brilliant effects on your body, the exact effects vary depending on the type of exercise, but in general it can help you to control your weight, increase muscle tone which in turn can help to alleviate aches and pains. Exercise can also help to increase bone density and has been shown to have a positive impact in reducing your risk of an incredibly long list of health concerns. However, this isn’t where the benefits stop exercise can also have an incredible effect on your mental health, from helping with anxiety and depression to just generally boosting your mood and reducing stress, exercise can play a very important role in helping you to take care of your mental wellbeing and that is what we will be taking a closer look at.
Before we start looking into the mental health benefits which exercise can provide I want to highlight the fact that mental health is an incredibly broad term and each person’s individual mental health is different and can change at any time, as such what works for one person may not work for another and if you or someone you know is concerned about their mental health and/or how it is making them feel, then they should speak to a trained medical specialist immediately as they will be able to outline all of the best options to help them feel better.
How exercise affects us mentally
Exercise can have an incredibly positive effect on our mental health, to start with exercise can help to treat mild to moderate forms of depression (one study even claimed it can treat these forms of depression as successfully as medication can), exercise helps combat depression in a variety of ways, firstly it promotes several changes in the brain including neural growth and new activity patterns which in turn produce a feeling of calmness and wellbeing. Exercise also helps to reduce inflammation in the brain as well as releasing endorphins which are a powerful chemical which help you to feel good.
Exercise has been linked to having a very positive effect on anxiety, this is because it helps the body to relieve stress and tension, adding a component of mindfulness to the exercise, such as exercising in a nature based setting such as a park or the woods can really help with this, by encouraging your mind to focus on what you can see and hear around you rather than the worries or unpleasant thoughts in your head.
SELF ESTEEM; I felt this one needed to be put in capitals and bold, because the effect of it on your mental state really can’t be emphasised enough. The problem with mental health is that when it starts to go bad often it can compound and compound and just get worse and worse. You may already be feeling low about an event happening in your life, then before you know it your mind seems to have for some reason decided the best approach to deal with this is to attack your self-perception and try to make you feel bad about yourself, it isn’t helpful at all and makes it even harder to bounce back, but we all do it! In regards to exercise I’m not saying that the answer to depression or other mental health issues is to get a six pack and because you think you look good you will feel good, no that’s not the point. The point is exercise will naturally give your body a hit of the feel good chemical endorphins, then with the aid of these feel good chemicals it becomes easier to perceive yourself in a better light, both from the standpoint of physically and aesthetically but also with the physical challenge your body has just completed. For example, if you run 1km celebrate that you ran that 1km praise yourself, big it up and bask in the success of the run. Then on the next run aim for 1.25km and so on. It doesn’t have to be running it can be lifting weights, stretching anything, just pick something then use it as a point of focus and control that you have within all the other stuff in your life which is weighing you down and bit by bit the positivity around the exercise can help to boost your self esteem/ self image and make you feel better about yourself.
Better sleep; exercise has been linked to improvement in both duration and quality of sleep and sleep has been identified as an incredibly important factor in mental health. Exercising just before bed can work against you and make you feel more alert making it more difficult to fall asleep. However, morning or afternoon exercise can help to promote a better night’s sleep in a completely natural way (as opposed to the use of sleeping aides which can often just make the problem worse further down the road).
Stronger resilience/ better coping mechanisms; this benefit isn’t necessarily one which is enormously supported by scientific literature, but I think it is a very important one, in life we all face struggles, times of adversity and difficulty, unfortunately many people then develop unhealthy coping mechanisms to help them cope with their emotions, this can be smoking, drinking, gambling, drug use and many other vices which can have enormously bad consequences for your health and your wider life. Exercise gives you an opportunity to deal with the emotions in a more healthy and proactive way, if you are struggling with stress then go for a run or go and do some boxing training, weight training, whatever suits you best. Then due to the natural endorphin release of the exercise you will notice that you feel better afterwards and soon your brain will start to associate the exercise with the stress release and want to do that when you become stressed rather than engage in any of the negative activities listed above.
The above are just a few of the mental health benefits of exercise, there are two main additional points which I would like to add, the first is that each person is different hence why I have tried to refer as broadly as possible to ‘exercise’, this is because one person a run may fill them with happiness and relaxation while another person may hate running and even the thought of it does more negative damage to their mood than the endorphin release could ever undo. So, choose what form of exercise you like, you may need to try a few different ones out but there are so many out there from running to swimming to cycling, to weight training, yoga, pilates, rock climbing the list really is endless so find what works for you and stick with it. Secondly not all mental health disorders are the same or to the same severity, each person is different and sometimes medication or external help may be necessary, this doesn’t mean that exercise hasn’t worked or is useless or any of these things, sometimes in some cases the individual just need a little additional help and this is absolutely fine and trying to implement a positive habit such as exercise on top of any medication or treatment will only help compound the benefits.
I hope you have enjoyed this blog post and it has been useful, exercise is so important for us, for both our internal and external health so try to find a form of exercise that you enjoy and then work it into being a regular part of your life.
Next Week’s Blog post – Is fitness tech essential?