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  • 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 have a symbiotic relationship. Whether it’s a positive or negative relationship, well, that’s your choice.

Using exercise to support good mental health is not a new concept. Studies over many years have shown 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.

Even more benefits

The health benefits of exercise are not just cardiovascular. Regular exercise also helps improve mood and sleep, increase interest in sex, increase energy, stamina and mental alertness whilst reducing stress, tiredness, weight and cholesterol. Further, like 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 your gut health. When we exercise the gut microbiota, both good and bad work to improve our overall health. The more you exercise the more the microbiota are stimulated. When this occurs, it improves the condition of the gut, which in turn helps your immune system and keeps us healthy.

So how does exercise improve your mental wellbeing? Regular exercise serves to improve your mental health through the release of key chemicals in your brain, notably, serotonin and endorphins. These chemicals help to relieve stress, by lifting your mood and libido while improving your sleep appetite. But you don’t have to be a fitness fanatic to reap the benefits. Research shows that modest amounts of exercise can make a real difference. There are several different studies, but broadly speaking 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, which in turn makes 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. Cortisol is great when we are activating the fight or flight response, but excessive cortisol can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes, and other chronic diseases. So, exercise actually 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 also promotes changes in the brain including neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns which result in feelings of calm and well-being. Movement also helps to release muscles and relieve tension in the body, which in turn helps to promote a better mood.

Exercise not only stimulates these chemicals and regions of the brain but also offers distraction, self-efficacy and (depending on the setting) social interaction. Distraction and interaction are important because they can act as a break in the negative cycle of rumination often associated with both anxiety and depression.

What types of exercise should you do?

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

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

How much is enough?

30 minutes, at least three times a week is the minimum amount of exercise recommended to feel the benefits. However, you do not have to join a gym, start running or be involved in a heavy exercise regime. To get started those 30 minutes can be broken down into three 10 minute walks.

Importantly, whilst a single exercise session can start those good chemicals flowing, it’s the accumulation and repetition of exercise where the magic happens.

If you’re really struggling to get started with exercise, consider another form of physical activity such as washing the car, doing the gardening or housework etc. All these activities increase the heart rate, allow you to breathe more deeply and kick start the chemical bonds 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 10 minutes of exercise today.

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