My clients often come to me with a specific goal in mind. Maybe they want to get in the best shape of their life for a dream holiday, lose weight for a wedding or anniversary, or improve their overall health, heart function and joint mobility.
However, one of the often-overlooked aspects of the benefits of exercise is that it is an incredibly useful way to improve and maintain a good baseline of mental health, releasing natural hormonal responses that can be highly effective.
Here I’ll explain the science behind the theory, the benefits of exercise for mental health and to support your mental wellbeing, and the best ways to get started if you’re brand new to the gym.
How Does Physical Activity Improve Mental Health?
The first thing to mention is that I absolutely appreciate that individuals struggling with anxiety, stress, and more complex conditions such as depression may find it difficult to motivate themselves to get involved in regular exercise. As we become more aware and informed of the impact of mental health conditions and mental illness, it is important to recognise that everyday tasks and social interactions can present huge obstacles, and there is no one cure-all solution.
That said, the benefits of regular exercise, even if just a simple walk outside, are profound:
- Exercising – anything that raises your heart rate – releases endorphins and other chemicals from our brains that make us feel better, aid our mental well being, make us more relaxed, and calmer.
- Physical exercise focuses your mind on a tangible, achievable task, similar to breath work, that can reset your pulse or stop negative thoughts from spiralling.
- Stimulating our muscles, heart and body can cut through the ‘flight or fight’ response that causes stress, reducing unhealthy spikes of adrenaline that can create panic, uncontrolled breathing, sweating and digestive issues.
The impacts of physical exercise far surpass almost any other remedy because it is our own brain and body that produces these effects, rather than waiting for a medication to begin working or improving your nutritional intake to gradually see improvements in your mood.
Each person may have a different form of exercise that produces the fastest or most desirable effects. Still, the baseline is understanding that any form of working out produces positive, impactful and 100% natural benefits.
What Are the Facts Linking Exercise for Mental Health Benefits?
In the world of personal training, we come across myths, misperceptions, and fake news every day. That might be about the optimal time to eat dinner, the ‘right’ exercise class that will deliver results, or the latest fat burner fad that every professional knows isn’t based on knowledge or scientific research.
It’s, therefore, essential that we back up the information we provide. Fortunately, there is a wealth of research, studies and trials that prove the effectiveness of a workout, whether to help you wind down after a tough day, cope with challenging periods or manage ongoing mental health issues.
The National Library of Medicine conducted a study in 2006 on Exercise for Mental Health and identified that lifestyle modifications could be of ‘especially great importance’ for people with serious mental illnesses. A higher risk of chronic diseases linked to sedentary activities and the side effects of medications can lead to cardiovascular conditions and diabetes, among others. The researchers conclude that exercise is an ‘often neglected intervention’ that could improve outcomes of mental health care.
The Nursing Times reported similar findings, following a study of 1.2 million people, discovering that people who work out regularly have 1.5 days less of poor mental health every month than those that don’t. The research suggests that 45 minutes of exercise three to five times a week produces the most mental health benefits, negating the potential assumption that highly intense, daily workouts are necessary.
Numerous other studies have evidenced that exercise can provide real improvements for people with mental health problems, whether a diagnosed condition or not. Still, these give you a flavour of the volume of scientific research out there.
How to Start Exercising to Boost Your Mental Health
Any exercise is a great place to start if you need to make a change and find sustainable, low-cost ways to manage your mental wellbeing. As we’ve seen, there isn’t any need to launch yourself into a complete lifestyle overhaul, and beginning slowly is much better if you’re new to exercising.
Here are some ideas that you can slot into your busy schedule:
- Vigorous activities such as gardening, cycling to work, or even housework can help release endorphins and contribute to a better, happier mood.
- Taking a brisk walk or swapping a car journey for foot power provides an easy way to increase your step count, burn a few calories, save money, and contribute to your mental wellness.
- Joining an exercise plan can make you accountable for keeping up with your new exercise routine. Try dance, spin, aerobics, swimming – anything you can incorporate into your daily routine and look forward to!
Weight training is often considered the ideal exercise for all sorts of reasons, as it helps improve bone density and enhance your physical health, but don’t feel you need to start aiming for world records straight away.
I always recommend working with a personal trainer if you want to lift weights, purely because form and technique are all-important – overdoing it or using free weights with bad form can cause injuries, so it’s essential to learn the right movements if you aren’t familiar with this type of exercise.
Overcoming Common Barriers for Better Mental Health
For those who find it difficult to engage in exercise, the first step may be a chat with your mental health professional to discuss the right support you need to proactively work towards better mental health.
Team sports or non-competitive environments can be an excellent opportunity to enjoy the physical health and mental health benefits of social interaction. A qualified trainer can also design a tailored workout programme, specifically designed to help you get the coaching and advice you need, in an inclusive space to ensure you feel confident enough to participate.
If you would like more guidance about improving your mental wellbeing through exercise and physical activity, or picking the right movements and workouts for you, please get in touch at any time, and we’ll arrange a good time to talk.