Exercise for Mental Health
By Natalie Hunt, Mental Health and Wellbeing Coordinator

The welcoming of a new year always brings physical health and exercise into sharp focus. From the latest celebrity fitness DVDs to apps that guarantee to show “results in 3 weeks”, we are saturated with ways to improve our bodies and health. The reasons why exercise is beneficial for our physical health are obvious but thankfully, there is now greater focus on why exercise is good for our wellbeing, not just our waistline. During the current pandemic, looking after our mental health has never been so important.

Research has shown that exercise increases blood circulation to the brain and affects our physiological response to stress. The stress response (an in-built, natural response that once helped to keep us safe from predators and other dangers) is now regularly triggered by modern day stressors such as a traffic jam or an overwhelming workload. As Emily and Amelia Nagroski suggest in their book, ‘Burnout’, wild animals can often be seen to ‘shake off’ their stress response after escaping a predator. Exercise, therefore, is a primary modern strategy for releasing those stress hormones from our bodies and communicating to the body that we are no longer in danger. The release of endorphins, the feel-good chemical, helps us to feel more energised, positive and able to manage future stressors more effectively.

Exercise has been proven to reduce levels of anxiety and depression and improve our mood, self esteem and cognitive function. Rather than fixating on negative thoughts, exercise can distract us and build feelings of empowerment and self management. It increases our energy levels (thanks to endorphins) and improves the quality of our sleep, which is fundamental to good mental health.

As social connection plays a significant role in our sense of wellbeing, exercising with others can have a powerful effect. The ‘bonding’ hormone, oxytocin, is released when we interact with our friends and loved ones. Exercising with friends or taking part in team sports can effectively reduce stress, anxiety and low mood and is something that many of us miss during the lockdown restrictions.

In order to reap the full benefits of exercise for our mental health, moderation is key and it is important to be aware of the dangers of over-exercising and obsessive healthy eating, particularly at this time of year when there is huge emphasis on weight loss and fitness in the media. Exercise should be something we enjoy and can fit easily into our schedules, not something that impacts us negatively. Aim to incorporate a range of activities throughout the week – from high intensity exercise to a walk with a friend or some gentle yoga. Exercising outside is particularly effective too, so try to include some time outside each day.

For more information on using exercise to improve your mental health, visit the Mental Health Foundation’s page.

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