Feeling overwhelmed? It might be time to put on your activewear and get moving. We investigate the benefits of exercise for your mental health and wellness…
By Anna Blewett
Most of us fall in and out of love with exercise. But when life gets tough, could a workout be the balm we need? For on-off runner Ellie Grogan, it was an unprecedented tsunami of work stress that encouraged her to pull her trainers back on. A consultant and lecturer in palliative medicine, Ellie (known to colleagues as Dr Eleanor Grogan) had struggled with injury and motivation before the pandemic changed everything.
‘I just needed to get out and clear my head.’
‘In 2019, I ran The Great North Run for charity,’ she starts. ‘I had plantar fasciitis, so it was horrible. I hobbled around saying, “never again”. But when the pandemic started, I found I got back into running. My job involves palliative care on a ward and in the community. When Covid struck, work intensified. It was hard work but there was something about going out for a run that was really helpful. I just needed to get out and clear my head.’
Ellie found 2020’s virtual Great North Run a great source of escape. And as the pandemic has rumbled on, her passion for running has deepened: ‘As I’ve got fitter, I’ve started to prefer the long runs. They allow me to untangle my thoughts and my head feels clearer afterwards.’ Ellie’s not alone: research conducted during the pandemic suggests that many of us have sought solace in exercise, with Strava reporting a doubling in the number of runs and cycle rides tracked, while walks tripled compared to those logged in the previous year.
‘Exercise keeps you focused and in the moment.’
‘People often say to me that without their training sessions, their head is all over the place,’ says Tirrel Grant, personal trainer. ‘I see people starting the session feeling worn down by external factors, but they leave it looking like a completely different person. Some run to get their headspace, some lift… It’s about feeling more in tune with your body and focusing on sensations like your breathing or a particular muscle. It keeps you focused and in the moment.’
Immersing yourself in an exercise routine can be a great escape from looping thoughts and the chattering mind that plagues many of us in times of stress. The mental health benefits of exercise can also be more long-lasting. ‘We know that moderate to vigorous activity has huge benefits for people’s mental health,’ says Dr Rebekah Carney, research associate at Manchester’s Youth Mental Health Research Unit. ‘It reduces anxiety, lowers the chance of experiencing depression in the future, increases resilience to stress… Whether it’s walking, running or playing sport with a group of people, the evidence base is strong for using exercise to protect your mental health.’
How does exercise benefit our mental health and well-being?
So, what’s going on in the brain during exercise that makes it so helpful for emotional wellbeing? ‘Even a 20-minute walk has real benefits in terms of reducing anxiety and gaining a little head space,’ says leading neuroscientist, Joe Devlin, of University College London. ‘And there are a couple of reasons for that. While our brains are doing lots of small tasks all the time, our “conscious brain” is really bad at multitasking. If you get up and go for a walk or run, there are all sorts of novel stimuli that take your brain away from internal thoughts. This forces a bit more external examination.’
In this way, our brains have a limited bandwidth that can be used to our advantage. In effect, we can flick a switch from general anxieties, to the here and now. ‘The process of exercise is important,’ says Devlin. ‘Often it takes concentration and, therefore, provides an escape from repetitive thoughts. That holds true even for what people think of as light exercise – t’ai chi, yoga or Pilates – or even lifting free weights. You’re focused on your physical body and that’s a form of mindfulness. You can’t think about what’s bothering you when you’re trying to lift a weighted bar above your head.’
Exercise suppresses the ‘worrying’ part of the brain
If you’ve ever experienced a ‘runner’s high’ you’ll know brain chemistry is also at play. But while the benefits of exercise are often put down to the release of mood-boosting endorphins, our hormones mean a workout can proactively ease a chattering mind.
‘When you exercise, your brain signals your body to release cortisol,’ says Devlin. ‘People tend to think of that as a stress hormone, for valid reasons, but what it’s really doing is releasing energy as your body needs it. Cortisol increases your heart rate, raises your blood sugar levels and increases your ability to use carbohydrate and fat. However, it also inhibits the part of your brain called the pre-frontal cortex. That’s the “worrying” part of your brain. It’s strategic, makes long-term plans and thinks on an executive level. That’s not needed in a fight-or-flight activity, so cortisol inhibits activity there.’
The result? Your workout suppresses the very part of your brain that might be worrying about your next mortgage payment or a disagreement with your line manager. What’s more, the harder you train, the more pronounced the effect. ‘That’s an added benefit to a higher-intensity exercise,’ says Devlin. ‘Roughly speaking, the higher you get your heart rate, the more cortisol is being released to help your body burn the energy. As a result, more of that suppressing activity happens. It doesn’t turn it off: you can still think. But it’s probably what elite athletes would call “the zone”. You’re able to respond to your environment and activity but not think so much about what you’re doing.’
Exercising outside offers greater benefits for mental health
According to the experts, it’s also possible to optimise the mind-calming elements of your workout. Where you exercise is an important factor. ‘There’s lots of research about the massive benefits of green and blue spaces,’ says Carney. ‘We know that being exposed to natural environments does wonders for our mental health and now this new concept of blue space – being near oceans, rivers, lakes – is coming to the fore.’
The extra sensory pleasures and distractions of a natural environment may help interrupt the habit to ruminate on problems or stressors. Devlin believes there’s good evidence that you’ll notice an improvement in your head space. ‘There was a study in Exeter a few years ago, a meta-analysis of the research around exercising indoor versus outdoors,’ he recalls.
‘The evidence suggests there is an extra benefit to exercising outdoors when comparing like with like. So, for example, in examining running indoors versus running outdoors (the activity the majority of these studies looked at), participants doing the latter showed greater reductions in anxiety and greater feelings of enjoyment and pleasure. It seems that being outdoors has benefits, exercise has benefits, and exercising outside has both of those benefits.’
Exercise encourages mindfulness
The last word goes to Laura Watters, senior physiotherapist at The Walton Centre in Liverpool, which works with patients affected by a brain or spinal injury. ‘The people I work with are dealing with conditions that are going to affect the rest of their lives,’ she explains. ‘There are huge anxieties – their whole world has just exploded. But when we do our physio sessions, it creates a mindfulness moment.
‘No matter the activity, exercise helps them focus on what they’re doing at that time, and not all the other things they’ve been worrying about. It’s the same for me – I can’t even tell you how much difference exercise has made to me. It used to be something I’d do if I got around to doing it, but it’s now a staple of the day. Swimming, running, cycling, kickboxing… it’s just about me, being in the moment.’
3 tips for building a stress-busting workout
1. Ditch the tracker
‘Take your Fitbit off,’ says Carney. ‘Going for a run or bike ride, with no time or performance pressure, every now and again is really important.’ Get your heart rate up but don’t sweat the details – just enjoy the feeling of being active.
2. Try something new
‘Getting coached through a new technique or exercise is a good way of staying focused and in the moment when you exercise,’ says Grant. Exercising with a PT or partner is another way to get a break from your internal monologue.
3. Sort your soundtrack
‘There’s a big correlation between your auditory neurons and your motor neurons,’ says Watters. ‘I find music is a great way to move away from negative thoughts and get into a different gear, ready to move.’