Most of us know that exercise can help our physical health, but the various ways in which getting fit can improve our mental health and wellbeing are often less known.
These benefits can be seen even on a scientific level as an increase in blood pumping to your brain changes your physiologic reaction to stress and stimulates areas of the brain that control your mood and motivation. It is great to know that exercise can be a powerful tool in helping you become healthier in mind, body and spirit.
What is exercise?
Exercise, or physical activity, is anything that gets you moving and your heart pumping faster. It does not have to be the stereotypical pounding of the treadmill in the gym or running an entire marathon (though it could be!); gentle walks, yoga stretches or dancing round your living room count, too!
The Department of Health suggests adults should exercise for 30 minutes five times a week. This does not mean it has to be five hardcore sessions that leave you dripping with sweat like you have been in a sauna! Even daily activities such as gardening or housework are still great ways of getting your body moving (particularly if you vacuum Mrs Doubtfire style!).
How exercise can help my mental health
Impact on mood
It has been proven that physical activity can immediately boost your mood, making you feel more content, enthusiastic and alert after just 30 minutes of low intensity activity. Studies have shown that the greatest effect of this mood boost from physical activity usually occurs when your mood is at its lowest, backing the idea that even when you feel least like moving, this can actually be the best time to grab those trainers.
Regular exercise can also help you sleep better, which supports neurogenesis (creation of new brain cells) and increases your ability to manage activities in the day ahead.
Impact on self-esteem
Self-esteem is vital for maintaining positive mental health as it determines how you perceive yourself and your sense of worth. By taking time to care for your body with exercise, you are making a committed investment to yourself; a valuable form of self-care. While your physical appearance may change, it is more important that you can feel a sense of achievement as you begin to feel strong and energised through hitting your personal exercise goals (no matter how big or small).
Impact on depression and anxiety
In some instances, exercise may be prescribed as a treatment for depression and anxiety as part of a wider treatment plan. For mild forms, it can sometimes be enough on its own or employed as a supplement to medication and therapy.*
Exercise promotes neural growth in the brain to favour new pathways that lead to feeling calm and content, which may support your wider strategy for combatting depression. Plus, it releases endorphins in your body (often known as ‘feel good’ chemicals). Physical activity also feeds into mindfulness tactics, which can help individuals refocus their mind in the present moment rather than becoming absorbed by worries of the past and future.
*Important: Every person is different, and if you are experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety you should consult your GP in the first instance to seek professional guidance or contact organisations such as Mind or Samaritans for more urgent mental health support.
Overcoming barriers to exercise
Sometimes, it may not be possible to exercise or, if you have never exercised before, it can be hard to know where to start and so there can be many blockers holding you back.
Combatting feeling self-conscious
Many people feel self-conscious when it comes to exercising; whether it is to do with body image or fitness levels, it is normal to feel a little anxious. Finding the right routine for your body type and level can help unlock your exercise potential and it can be reassuring to know that, even at a gym class, nobody will be looking at you because they will be focusing on their own fitness journey.
YMCA Gym is particularly good for dispelling exercise anxiety as classes are geared towards community-minded support in a safe, non-judgemental environment where no one feels left behind. Once you get started, feelings of self-consciousness will most likely fade as you begin to achieve the small goals you set for yourself and the physical activity improves your self-esteem.
Starting any form of regular exercise can be daunting if you have never done it before, and mental wellbeing is hugely important. Many people find the time commitment overwhelming, but it is more a shift in attitude that is required. Find ways to move that feel good for you and start off slowly; some people thrive in a spin class or communal Zumba session, whereas others may prefer a gentle outdoor jog with a running club.
Make it achievable
When you are feeling low, exercise is often the last thing you want to do, though it may help get you out of that psychological rut. The best way to begin is to start small, especially if you aren’t used to exercise. Often, people start off too hard and end up injuring themselves or creating unrealistic ideas about what exercise has to be like, which makes it seem more off-putting. Remembering how tough the last workout was doesn’t really make it feel inviting to do it again.
Do what you enjoy
Working out should always be about enjoyment and pushing yourself to hit your personal targets in a positive way. By setting smaller, achievable goals that you can work towards, you will get an extra boost from having achieved something great and you will gradually build up your strength in a more sustainable way. If you hate running, don’t choose running as your form of exercise! There are so many different activities available, pick the one that makes you feel happy.
Exercise when your energy is highest
The hardest part about exercising is getting started. Once you start, your mood boosts instantly and it is then easier to carry on. That’s why we recommend going for even a five minute walk (if possible) no matter how low you feel because, more often than not, once you have achieved five minutes, you may feel able to carry on or do some more vigorous exercise. Find the time in the day or week where you have the most energy to schedule the time you will exercise.
Exercise with a friend
Exercising with a friend can make a workout even more fun. The aim is to boost your mood so, by making it an enjoyable activity to share with a buddy, it may have even better results. Peer support can also help to motivate you or keep you accountable to your goal setting.
Do it for you
Exercise can come in so many different varieties you can pick whichever you enjoy the most and start taking those first steps of self-care to improve your mental wellbeing. Take a look at our gym classes and see if there is something you would enjoy.
Most importantly, remember there is no right or wrong way to get healthier – it is about your personal journey and what inspires you to get moving.
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