Our busy lives are causing a mental health crisis, with 1 in 4 people in England experiencing some kind of mental health issue every year, according to MIND UK. Stress, anxiety, and depression are on the rise, so it is more important than ever to look after your mental wellbeing and make it a priority.
If you are struggling, the best thing you can do is to reach out for help. MIND UK’s list of resources is a great starting point to find out where to go for support. But there are also some ways we can look after our mental health through our lifestyle. A big factor here is being physically active through developing a regular exercise routine.
In this article, we look at why exercise is essential for our mental health and make some suggestions on how you can start incorporating physical activity into your everyday routine.
How exercise supports our mental health
Understanding the benefits of exercise for improving our mental wellbeing is crucial in motivating us to get moving. A 2018 study looking at exercise in people with mental health issues, found that the group who focused on the benefits of exercise for their mood were more likely to work out than those who focused on the benefits for their physical fitness.
Exercise supports our mental health in several different ways. Let’s take a closer look at some of them.
1. Exercise improves our sleep
Getting enough sleep is vital to our mental health and wellbeing. Studies have linked the length and quality of our sleep with our risk of developing anxiety and depression. So, getting a better night’s sleep is important to protect our mental health.
It is no surprise to find that exercise has been found to improve our sleep. At the most basic level, being physically active uses up energy and we then need our rest in order for our bodies to rebuild our energy stores.
But exercise also helps to regulate our circadian rhythms because it causes the release of serotonin, a chemical that is used by our nervous systems. Serotonin plays many roles, including signalling to our brains when it is time to sleep and when it is time to wake up.
Exercise improves our sleep quality too. It has been shown to increase slow-wave sleep, the deep sleep phase that is vital to allowing our bodies to heal, repair, and maintain.
So, for a better night’s sleep and all the associated benefits for our mental health, regular exercise is a must.
2. Exercise relieves stress
Managing our stress levels is vital to our mental health. The more stressed we feel, the more likely we are to develop anxiety or depression. And stress can be harmful for our physical health too – it has been linked to numerous diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, obesity, asthma, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Exercising regularly is a great way to reduce our stress levels. As well as releasing feel-good chemicals, such as serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins, exercise can function as a form of mindfulness. It roots us in our physical bodies, forcing us to concentrate on the here and now. Since anxiety and stress are often associated with worries for the future, exercise helps to distract us by pulling our thoughts into the present.
3. Exercise increases concentration and mental alertness
One of the characteristics of mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression is that feeling of ‘brain fog’ – an inability to think clearly, concentrate on tasks, and find motivation. The good news is that exercise has been found to combat this feeling, helping us to concentrate better and feel more mentally alert.
A 2007 study by researchers in Germany found that high-intensity running caused an increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) – a protein found in our brains which is involved in the growth of brain cells. Participants in the study who had been doing sprints were able to learn new vocabulary words better than those who hadn’t.
You don’t have to sprint to get the benefits either. More recent research has found that moderate aerobic exercise can also increase our cognitive control – meaning we can more easily process information and respond to it.
4. Exercise boosts our mood
When we exercise, our brains release mood-enhancing chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. These all have a role to play in our mental wellbeing.
Often termed the ‘feel-good’ hormone, dopamine is involved in feelings of pleasure and motivation. Having low levels of dopamine is associated with mental health issues such as depression, as well as degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s.
Serotonin is a chemical that is involved in sending signals between your nerves. It also has a key role to play in our mental health. High levels of serotonin are linked with feelings of happiness, but low levels are associated with depression and anxiety.
Endorphins are a group of hormones that help us to cope with pain and stress. They have a similar effect on our brains to opioid drugs, giving us a natural (and safe) high that can help to boost our mood and lower stress levels.
These mood-boosting chemicals are a key reason why exercising can help to lift our spirits and enhance our mental wellbeing.
5. Exercise reduces inflammation
Researchers are increasingly discovering the role that inflammation plays in a wide range of illnesses. And this includes mental health disorders.
Various studies have found a link between the inflammatory response and mental health issues, especially depression. As a result, treating inflammation is thought to have beneficial consequences for our mental health, as well as our physical wellbeing.
The good news is that exercise can help to reduce inflammation and combat depression. In 2018, researchers tested this hypothesis by monitoring the effect of exercise on depression in students. They found that both moderate and high-intensity exercise reduced the risk of depression. Moderate exercise was particularly good in decreasing levels of both stress and inflammation.
The evidence suggests that exercise isn’t only good for raising our mood – it can also reduce the risk of mental health issues by addressing underlying inflammation and stress.
Getting enough exercise
As we’ve seen, regular exercise has multiple benefits for our mental health, boosting our mood, helping us to sleep better, reducing inflammation, and increasing our mental clarity. So, you may be wondering how to get started on a regular exercise routine to protect your mental wellbeing.
The good news is that you don’t have to suddenly start intensive exercise to get the benefits. Even moderate levels of exercise have been found to benefit our mental health. That 2018 study on depression in students found that moderate exercise is the best to lower stress levels and prevent depression. The NHS recommend building up to 150 minutes of exercise a week.
However, even moderate exercise can seem like a challenge when you are feeling low. Although exercise itself can help to raise your energy levels, it is getting started in the first place that can be tricky.
If you are struggling with your motivation, keeping these benefits to your mood in mind may help. As we discussed earlier, focusing on the impact of exercise on our mental health is more likely to keep us motivated than focusing on the physical benefits.
Finding an activity that you enjoy is also a key part of motivating yourself to get moving. You could try a few different options out first to see what feels best for you. Exercising with a friend or family member may also make it more enjoyable and help you keep to a regular routine.
For those who don’t enjoy vigorous exercise, gentler activities like walking and yoga have been shown to be good for our mental wellbeing. They are also low-cost activities that require little equipment.
What is most important is to keep your exercise free from judgement. This isn’t about being the fastest, or the best, or working out the most. For exercise to benefit our mental health it needs to bring us joy, not stress.
If you feel like you are becoming too fixated on physical goals or it is becoming a source of guilt, it is time to take a step back and re-evaluate what you are trying to achieve.
Taking care of our mental health is vital to living a happy and fulfilled life. Although it can be difficult to make changes when we are feeling low, incorporating exercise into our daily routine has multiple benefits for our wellbeing.
By increasing our understanding of the vital role exercise plays in boosting our mood, we are more likely to feel motivated to prioritise physical activity and make it a regular part of our day. This is an excellent way to invest in our mental wellbeing.
We hope that this article has helped to inspire you to explore new ways to get moving.