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Top 5 ways exercise can improve your mental health

by Georgina 8 minutes read

Last updated: 09 Aug, 2023

If you are already struggling mentally, then your first thought may not be to start up a workout routine. But research shows that just 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week can boost your energy levels, your socialisation, fight pain and above all improve your mental and emotional wellbeing. Here we will take a dive into the specifics and explain how it does this and why it is so necessary for so many people.

1. Depression

There have been dozens of studies over the years which show that exercise can be an effective, and often underused, way of treating the symptoms of depression. It produces serotonin, the ‘feel-good’ chemical, as well as norepinephrine and dopamine which are all involved in regulating mood and helping us to feel happier.

For mild-moderate depression, research indicates physical activity can be as effective as psychological treatments like CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) or antidepressants. Even the risk of major depression can be reduced by 26% by walking an hour a day, or running for just 15 minutes daily, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Now unfortunately, exercise is not going to wipe away your mental health problems, but it can be an important first step. Regular physical activity can be used alongside other treatments, or sometimes that little boost is all you need to kickstart the improvements in other areas of your life. Going from 0 to 100 is hard, if not impossible for most people and it’s important to take it one step at a time.

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There are lots of changes we can make to our lives to improve our mental health, for example, reaching out and seeing your friends. Often though, we feel our mental health must already be at a certain level to derive any mental health benefits from these activities. Exercise, even moderate exercise, or a walk, can provide a kickstart to your serotonin that you need to feel ready to get yourself out into the world and allow you the ability to enjoy the activities and relationships you lost interest in.

Perhaps for you it might work best the other way around. By taking a small step in spending some more time with your loved ones, this will give you the energy you need to get out of bed today and try some physical activity. Regardless, it will create a virtuous cycle in your life. One step of improvement will feed the next step and the next and on and on.

2. Stress & Anxiety

Stress and anxiety can often impact our bodies. They can cause sleeping problems, high blood pressure and lack of appetite. They can make us feel tense and painful as our bodies struggle to relax, staying wired up in emergency mode. So it makes sense that it can work the other way around as well. We can use our bodies to reduce our stress and anxiety.

The endorphins released by exercise act as natural painkillers and mood boosters, so effective that some doctors recommend trying a routine of exercise before turning to medications. Beyond just temporary relief, exercise can help provide long term life-quality improvements. Increasing your heart rate can actually reverse stress-induced damage to your brain cells, which can improve your cognition and mood, as well as reduce the risk of memory loss.

Understandably, this approach may not be suitable for everyone, especially for those with anxieties, or disorders surrounding food and body-image, but for those who wish to make a try, but are too anxious to be in gyms or crowded areas, there are options available:

  • Try home workouts instead or local runs in quiet areas.

  • Avoid busy times at the gym, especially late evening and early morning (some gyms even show a live update of how many people are there to help you plan your own workout times).

  • Bring a buddy - having someone there for support can make a world of difference and help you feel more comfortable.

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3. Sleep

One of the things that can drag down our mental health the most is a disorganised sleeping pattern, and in particular a lack of sleep. It reduces our energy levels, and heightens our depression and anxiety.

Better sleep is vital for our mental health and regular exercise can contribute to this. The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry published a study investigating the effects of exercise on the sleep quality of adolescents and found that just moderate-intensity aerobic exercise significantly improved the participants' sleep quality, the time it took them to fall asleep and increased their duration of deep sleep.

By regulating circadian rhythms, physical exercise can help reduce insomnia, reduce sleep apnoea and improve sleep quality, helping us wake up feeling better rested and ready to face the day.

Additionally, exercise can help minimise the time it takes for us to fall asleep. That period of waiting, between consciousness and unconsciousness can often be the worst time of the day for people struggling mentally. The quiet and lack of distractions can unlock a gateway of all our stress, anxieties and insecurities and bring them to the forefront of our mind, exacerbating issues of insomnia and lack of sleep even further. By minimising that waiting time, we can more easily find the relief and reset that sleep affords us.

4. Self-Esteem

The impact of a person's self-confidence on their mental wellbeing is critical. Low self-esteem can cause or exacerbate feelings of low-mood and anxiety and reduce an individual's life quality dramatically.

Whilst some of these insecurities might center around body image and weight, and exercise can help improve self-esteem in these regards, it is important not to let your focus be too centered on this. Our bodies are prone to changing and our weights will often fluctuate, these fluctuations can be caused by any number of things in life. Setting goals of weight change to improve our self-esteem can be beneficial but it is important not to ground our self-esteem too heavily in this and accept and expect the inevitable fluctuations in our bodies.

Aside from this caveat, physical activity can help improve our self-esteem in a myriad of other ways. By setting ourselves goals and reaching them, by stepping out of our comfort zones and challenging ourselves, we can move away from self-doubt and criticism and build our self-confidence. A sense of accomplishment can undoubtedly make a positive impact on our mental state. In fact, studies have shown that physical activity is directly linked to self esteem.

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5. Loneliness

In this highly individualised modern society, now more than ever people are feeling increasingly isolated and lonely. The communal companionship our parents grew up with has disappeared and it becomes harder and harder to make friends. Especially as you get older.

When you were younger, the person who sat next to you in school became your friend, a neighbor's kid became your friend and often, we made friends through sports. It was a group activity that gave us the opportunity to learn how to work together, rely on each other and build bonds. The older we get, the less these opportunities are presented to us. But despite jobs, children, or otherwise busy lives, we need to start seeking them out for ourselves.

Sport and exercise are an excellent way of meeting people, whether you are young or old. Although the opportunities to play team sports are no longer handed to us on a plate, there are plenty of adult local sports teams accessible for all. It can be daunting and a little embarrassing to try something new, whether you play at an advanced level or you’re a beginner looking to start a new hobby, there are a variety of different teams and clubs out there that will welcome you.

Meeting new people and building a sense of community with those near you with similar sports (or even gym) interests and passions can help combat our own lack of motivation, reduce our sense of isolation, and improve our physical and mental wellbeing.

We often look at exercise as a burden, something that we should do. But it can be something that we want to do. It can be a reason for us to get out of bed that morning, or to push ourselves that bit further. It can reinvigorate our lives.

Don’t suffer alone!

If you are struggling, then please seek help and support.

  • Call NHS 111 (for when you need help but are not in immediate danger)
  • Contact your GP and ask for an emergency appointment.
  • Use the 'Shout' crisis text line - text SHOUT to 85258.

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