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…

Research conducted during the pandemic suggests that many of us have sought solace in exercise for our mental health and wellbeing, 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.

We’re often told than exercise is hugely beneficial for our mental health and well-being, but why is this the case? According to F45 Trainer, Holly Balan, explains: ‘Engaging in exercise to look after our bodies is amazing, but we should not neglect what is arguably the most important organ in the body – the brain.’

What is mental health?

Firstly, it’s important to highlight that everybody ‘has’ mental health. The importance of exercising for mental health extends to everybody, not just to those with a diagnosed mental health condition such as anxiety or depression. As Holly explains: ‘Put simply, mental health refers to our emotional and psychological wellbeing. It can influence our self-esteem, as well as how we think, feel, act, cope with life’s stresses, and engage with our loved ones.’

It’s also important to remember that mental health and wellbeing can be impacted at any stage of life (due to stress, grief, physical health concerns, hormones). ‘Therefore, we should prioritise our at all ages alongside our physical health,’ Holly adds.

Why is exercise beneficial for mental health and wellbeing?

‘Exercise and physical activity can have an enormously positive impact on our mental health: Think ‘strong body, strong mind’, Holly says. Countless studies have highlighted the improvements that exercise and physical activity has upon mental health, with positive effects including:

  • Improved self-esteem
  • Improved cognitive functioning (including a reduction in risk of developing dementia)
  • Reduced symptoms of anxiety, depression and negative moods
  • Increased ability to manage stress
  • Increased mental alertness and energy levels

With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at what’s going on in the brain when we exercise, to uncover the relationship between fitness and mental health…

Exercise triggers the release of endorphins

Exercise triggers the release of many different chemicals within the brain, including endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. These chemicals, particularly endorphins, are often referred to as ‘feel-good’ chemicals. This is because they help to regulate and boost your mood, improve your sleep quality, reduce stress and relieve pain.

benefits of exercise mental health

Joe Devlin: ‘When you exercise, you’re focused on your physical body and that’s a form of mindfulness.’

Exercise distracts you from your worries

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 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. However, 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.’

Tirrel Grant: ‘Some run to get their headspace, some lift… It’s about feeling more in tune with your body and focusing on sensations.’

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. However, 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. Now, a 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 mental health benefits wellness

Laura Watters: ‘Exercise helps you focus on what you’re doing at that time, and not all the other things you’ve been worrying about.’

Exercise encourages mindfulness

Laura Watters, senior physiotherapist at The Walton Centre in Liverpool, which works with patients affected by a brain or spinal injury, explains: ‘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.’

How to look after your mental health with exercise:

To look after your mental health, it’s important to incorporate exercise into your daily life. If that sounds daunting, don’t worry – you don’t need to do an hour-long workout every day: ‘Keep it simple! You could start by meeting a friend for a 30-minute walk, doing some gardening, taking the stairs instead of the escalator, getting off the bus a few stops early, or even just giving the house a good clean!’ Holly explains.

According to Holly, ‘These activities can be referred to as NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) which essentially refers to non-structured exercise physical activity. Improving your ‘NEAT’ is a great way to supplement a more ‘formal’ exercise schedule, and will help to increase your physical activity, as well as providing a sense of achievement – it’s a win-win!’

The experts share their top tips for reaping the mental health benefits of exercise…

Find your motivation

‘Set aside some time to really check in with yourself and think about what your goals and motivations are,’ Holly urges. ‘Once you identify your motivations and needs, you can set yourself manageable goals each week to make sure that you incorporate exercise into your schedule and prioritise your mental wellbeing.

‘Mental health can impact your motivation, so it can be helpful to set your commitments and intentions for the week ahead, to keep you on track and focused on your goals,’ Holly adds.

Identify any barriers

It’s important to explore the reasons that may prevent you from exercising and find solutions. ‘If self-esteem or body image is holding you back from swimming, try a women-only swim session. Or, if money is tight, try walking or jogging outside,’ Holly suggests.

‘If you’re unsure where to start or how to exercise safely, seek support from a professional such as a Personal Trainer. If your mood and motivation tend to decrease towards the end of the day, factor in some time to exercise in the morning and start the day feeling physically and mentally strong. Everyone is different, so it’s important to recognise your barriers and limitations.’

Happy woman running

Find a form of exercise that you truly enjoy

Exercise can be a daunting prospect, especially if you are unsure where to start. However, it can also be an empowering and enjoyable lifestyle choice. If you’re looking for a truly enjoyable form of exercise, why not attend a group class? ‘Group exercise can be a great way to meet new people and expand your social life too, which further promotes healthy mental wellbeing,’ Holly explains.

If you’re still feeling a bit lost, why not try something completely new? ‘Getting coached through a brand new technique or exercise is a good way of staying focused and in the moment when you exercise,’ says Grant.

Ditch the tracker

While many of us have become dependent on our fitness watches for tracking our every move, becoming too caught up in the stats can reverse the mindfulness benefits of exercise. ‘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.

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.’ Before your next workout, why not create a new playlist with your favourite upbeat tracks? Whether you prefer cheesy 80s tunes or some hardcore rock, fill up your playlists with some songs that are sure to give your a boost.

Words: Anna Blewett | Images: Shutterstock

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