top of page
  • Writer's pictureKevin Humphreys

Exercise and Mental Health

The more you move the better you feel and the better you feel the more you move.


You might not realise it, but exercise and mental health are symbiotic. Whether it's positive or negative is your choice.


Using exercise to support good mental health is not a new concept. Studies over many years have shown that improved mental health is just one of the good reasons to get off the couch and get moving. When you're feeling stressed or low, you probably feel more like watching Netflix, YouTube, or TikTok than being active. But it's often when you least feel like it that you most need it.


The health benefits of exercise are not just cardiovascular. Regular exercise also helps improve mood and sleep, increase interest in sex, and increase energy, stamina, and mental alertness while reducing stress, tiredness, weight, and cholesterol. Further, as fatigue, lack of energy, and poor sleep habits are key indicators of depression, any effort to increase energy and improve sleep can only have a positive flow-on effect.


Physical activity also helps gut health. The more you exercise, the more the microbiota are stimulated. This improves the condition of the gut, which in turn helps your immune system and keeps you healthy.


So how does exercise improve your mental wellbeing? Regular exercise serves to improve your mental health through the release of essential chemicals in your brain, notably serotonin and endorphins. These chemicals help to relieve stress by lifting your mood and libido while improving your sleep and appetite. But you don't need to be an exercise enthusiast to enjoy the advantages. Studies indicate that even small amounts of physical activity can have a tangible impact.Whilst there are some variations, a broad consensus shows that 30 minutes of moderate exercise is equivalent to a mild-moderate anti-depressant. Exercise creates a positive cycle; the more you move, the better you feel, making you want to move more.


The other impact of exercise on chemicals in the body is on our stress hormones, also known as cortisol. Cortisol is released in the body when we are under stress. We want cortisol when we are activating the fight or flight response. However, excessive cortisol can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes, and other chronic diseases. In fact, exercise provides a double bonus; while the serotonin and endorphins mentioned above work to lift our mood, the resultant decrease in stress leads to a reduction in cortisol as well.


Research also shows other benefits of exercise on the brain. Exercise promotes changes in the brain, including neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns, which result in feelings of calm and wellbeing. Movement also helps to release muscles and relieve tension in the body, which in turn helps to promote a better mood.


Exercise stimulates these chemicals and regions of the brain and offers distraction, self-efficacy, and (depending on the setting) social interaction. Distraction and interaction are important because they can break the negative cycle of rumination often associated with anxiety and depression.


What types of exercise should you do? From a mental health perspective, any exercise works well. Whether it's aerobic (walking, running, swimming, cycling) or strength/resistance (weight training, yoga, Pilates), you'll benefit no matter what form you choose.


When should you start? The sooner, the better. However, how much and what type will depend on your current state of health and fitness. If you're not sure, seek out advice from your GP.


How much is enough? To feel the benefits, 30 minutes of exercise, at least three times a week, is the minimum amount recommended. However, you do not have to join a gym, start running, or be involved in a heavy exercise regime. To get started, break that 30 minutes into six walks of five minutes each day or three 10-minute walks.


Importantly, while a single exercise session can start those good chemicals flowing, the magic happens when exercise is accumulated and repeated.


If you need help getting started with exercise, consider another form of physical activity such as washing the car or doing the gardening. These activities increase the heart rate, allow you to breathe more deeply and kick start the chemical bonus in the body and brain (they also give you a sense of accomplishment once the task is done. Double bonus!)


Take the first step towards better physical and mental health by participating in five minutes of exercise today.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page