‘If exercise could be purchased in a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial drug in the nation’ said Dr Robert Butler in the 1980’s. Of course we all know the truth in this statement as it’s long since been known that exercise is great for our bodies – having been linked to benefits such as reduced risk of heart disease and certain types of cancers, helping us to maintain a healthy weight and strengthening bones and muscles. All excellent reasons to exercise of course, however in recent years there has been a growing interest in mental health and how exercise can help with that too. Never has this been more important than in recent months with the challenges it may have posed for our mindset and below are just a few of the ways that exercise can help with mental health.
1) Endorphins – Chances are you’ve heard this word thrown around by people encouraging you to exercise, but do you know what endorphins actually are? These are chemicals produced naturally by our bodies which act as painkillers (the word literally means ‘morphine from within’) and can also produce feelings of euphoria. The release of endorphins can be stimulated by several activities, with one of the main ones being exercise. If you’ve heard terms such as ‘runner’s high’ and ‘post-workout glow’ for how amazing people feel after an exercise session, these are thought to be down to the action of these chemicals being released and are physical reactions not just imagined feelings. Endorphins are thought to play a strong role in findings that regular exercise can help to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. A natural drug with all of these amazing physical and mental health benefits and no nasty side effects to worry about? Pass me my trainers now please!
2) Mindfulness – This is another word you may have heard being used in health and wellbeing circles recently, as it’s enjoying something of a heyday in terms of how it can benefit our health. Mindfulness is all about ‘being in the moment’ and keeping our attention on what’s happening here and now rather than letting our busy brains ruminate on the past or worry about the future. Many mindfulness practices involve quiet meditation or listening to a soothing voice guiding you through relaxation exercises. Whilst these can be hugely beneficial, many people struggle as they find their mind just gets more chance to wander which can lead to them feeling more agitated than before. Exercise is an excellent way to be ‘in the moment’ without necessarily having to be still or quiet. Quite often we’re so focused on keeping in time with the music, or keeping our body in the right position for a certain move or even wondering if the session is nearly over yet that all of our other cares can fade away for an hour or so. Quite often this can act as a real break for the mind and can leave us feeling refreshed and with a clearer perspective afterwards.
3) Sense of Achievement and Confidence – If we have specific body composition goals in mind such as fat loss, exercise can help to achieve these and can help to boost our body confidence. On top of this, however, there’s a whole heap of confidence to be built simply just by completing a session. We may have seen spin classes on TV in the past or bootcamps happening in our local parks and thought ‘I could never do that’, but by signing up and giving it a go we often find we’re pleasantly surprised by what we actually can achieve. Over time, we may improve our running times or increase the weights we can lift which can help to boost our confidence further or it may be that we hit our goal of working out 3 times a week. Whatever targets you set yourself, setting your mind to something and subsequently achieving it is a perfect reason to give yourself a huge ‘well done’ and feel extremely proud of your success.
4) Social Interaction or Alone Time – There are so many different ways to exercise that there really is something to suit everyone, at any time. Being a gym member and/or attending classes is a great way to connect with people with similar goals to yourself and provides endless support. Similarly, pairing up with a friend or two and becoming workout buddies can be a great way to keep fit and healthy whilst also having a good old therapeutic catch up! Having a strong social network can reduce feeling of loneliness and isolation and is therefore very important for our mental health. On the flip side, we all have days where we’d prefer to be alone for a while and a quiet period of time with your headphones in and the world shut out can be exactly what’s needed to relax your mind. In these times a walk/cycle/jog alone or a one-to-one PT session in a quiet environment can be ideal. Take time to listen to your mind and body and tailor your exercise to what you need at the time.
5) Fun and Enjoyment – Last but certainly not least, is something that is so simple we often overlook it when it comes to mental health and exercise. You can dig into scientific evidence all you want on these topics, and of course this is extremely important when understanding how things work, but sometimes simple is good. In modern society, it’s common to think of exercise as yet another thing on our seemingly endless ‘to-do list’ which can lead to feelings of disappointment and even guilt when we don’t manage to squeeze it in or just don’t have the energy. If we can reframe the way we think of exercise so that we focus on what we enjoy about it and how much fun it can be, this not only increases our motivation to do it but also amplifies the positive effects it can have on our mental health. Whether it’s a dance class or a boogie at home, a laugh with your personal trainer or classmates or a long walk with the family – if you can combine fun and physical activity you’re definitely onto a winner!
So, next time you’re procrastinating on your workout or feeling like your mood could do with a boost, please remember all the excellent ways above that an exercise session can help to support you and give it a go! We’d love to hear any other ways that exercise helps your mental health and please remember that it should never be used as an alternative to other treatments for mental health conditions. If in doubt, be sure to seek advice from a medical professional. Stay well and we’ll see you back here soon for the next blog!
Bev Meakin – Personal Trainer, Exercise Referral Officer, Complementary Therapist.