Exercise and mental health

We all know that exercise is important for our physical health, but less well known are the benefits to our mental health. Physical activity can help to reduce stress, improve mental and emotional wellbeing. Research evidence also indicates that exercise can be as effective as medication at reducing symptoms in some cases. In addition to helping reduce symptoms, research shows that exercise can help to reduce the risk of developing mental illness and assist in the recovery of disorders like anxiety and depression.

Benefits of exercise for mental health

  • Release of feel-good chemicals – endorphins and serotonin
  • Reduces stress
  • Reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Improves sleep, which in turn helps to regulate mood
  • Improves energy levels
  • Improves self-esteem and confidence
  • Helps you to think more clearly
  • Improves memory and promotes connections between new cells

Type of exercise

Whilst any exercise is better than no exercise at all, aerobic exercise and weight lifting are known to be the most effective at reducing depressive symptoms. Thirty minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise is recommended on most days of the week. Try regular, shorter bouts of vigorous activity if that is easier to achieve. Vigorous means exercising at intensity that makes it difficult to have a conversation at the same time.

Get started with small steps

The idea of making exercise a part of your daily routine may seem overwhelming at first. Whilst it’s common to wait for motivation before taking action, it is important to remember that motivation will often increase after you have already taken action. It is helpful to set small, achievable goals to start with. Once you do achieve them, not only will you be experiencing the benefits of exercise, but achieving goals helps build your confidence and increase your motivation to keep at it and take that next step. Remember that even a few minutes of physical activity is better than nothing. Plus, a little exercise will improve your energy so eventually you’ll be able to exercise more.

Tips to help incorporate exercise into your life

  • Set goals to help motivate you
  • Involve others – share your goals or exercise sessions with others to hold you accountable and keep you motivated
  • Find something you like – you’re more likely to stick with something if you find it enjoyable. Perhaps you could start with throwing a ball for your dog at the park, walking laps of the shopping centre, or gardening at home
  • Think about why you are doing it – how will exercise improve your life? Think about what’s important to you and how exercising will provide benefits that are in line with your values, e.g., giving you more energy to play with your children
  • Choose something that is appropriate for you – it is important to consider any physical health issues that may impact your ability to exercise. If necessary, consult your GP before getting started
  • Use reminders or triggers – small things like leaving your running shoes next to your bed can be a good reminder to start your day with some exercise, or scheduling exercise into your diary so you don’t forget
  • Timing – choose a time of the day that’s going to work for you, taking into account your energy levels throughout the day. If the mornings are a struggle for you, squeeze exercise into your lunch break instead, or schedule it after work
  • Stick with it – it can take a little while to see the benefits so don’t be discouraged if you don’t notice significant changes right away
  • Reward yourself for reaching goals, perhaps with some new running shoes, or a bubble bath after exercising.

Overcoming hurdles

It’s important to have a think about potential barriers that might get in the way of you exercising and plan for these.

  • Tiredness – exercise is a great way to become more energised. If a thirty minute workout sounds too overwhelming, just go for a 5 minute walk around the block. You may find that this then gives you the energy to do another lap!
  • Weather – if it’s not suitable to exercise outside, plan some activities you could do inside instead, e.g., yoga, climbing the stairs, cleaning the house
  • Time – If you’re short on time, try to fit in short bouts of activity when you can or make small lifestyle changes such as always taking the stairs, or getting off the bus one stop early and walking the rest of the way
  • Financial – if a gym membership is not within your budget, consider free exercise options like walking, running, or following exercise videos on YouTube

Be kind to yourself

Like forming any new habit, incorporating exercise into your daily life may not be an easy thing to achieve. Some days are going to be harder than others. Try not to be critical of yourself if you don’t stick to your plan, and remember that every step you take is better than no steps at all!

Written by Emma Burton, Clinical Psychologist (Registrar).

More information

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