It’s widely understood that exercise benefits us in many different ways and not all of these are the obvious physical benefits. Those who exercise regularly experience an enormous sense of well-being, feel more energetic throughout the day, can sleep better at night, have sharper memories, and often feel more relaxed and positive about themselves and their lives. Because of this regular exercise can have a profoundly positive impact on your mental health. And even better, the exercise that relieves stress and boosts your overall mood doesn’t have to be fitness fanatic type exercise in order for you to feel the benefits. Research indicates that even the most modest amounts of exercise will still make a difference and when used hand in hand with any other medical advice you receive you can use exercise as an additional powerful tool to feel better, no matter your age, ability or fitness level.
Exercise and Depression
A recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%. In addition to relieving depression symptoms, research also shows that maintaining an exercise schedule can help get you in a healthier routine and mindset, overcome those motivational slumps that come with depression and help avoid relapsing behaviours.
Exercise is a powerful depression fighter for several reasons. Most importantly, it promotes all kinds of changes in the brain, including neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being. It also releases endorphins, powerful chemicals in your brain that energise you and make you feel upbeat. Exercise can also serve as a distraction, allowing you to find some quiet time to break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression. And finally, achieving your goals however big or small, doing something positive for yourself even when you don’t feel good in yourself and pushing through those motivational ruts can leave you with increased self esteem, an improved mental outlook and a big sense of achievement.
Exercise and Anxiety
Exercise is a natural and effective tool to help improve any anxiety an individual may be feeling. It relieves tension and stress, boosts physical and mental energy and enhances well-being through the release of endorphins. Anything that gets you moving and out of a routine of anxious behaviours can help, but you’ll get the most benefit if you do an activity that requires you to pay attention to the task at hand instead of zoning out. For example taking up a new sport and giving yourself the mental break as you have something else to focus on can help alleviate anxious thoughts and feelings for a while. If you’re not yet comfortable taking up a new sport and are more likely to do something like running or cycling try to still add an element of mindfulness. For example, try to notice the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, or the rhythm of your breathing, or the feeling of the wind on your skin. By adding this mindfulness element—really focusing on your body and how it feels as you exercise—you’ll not only improve your physical condition faster, but you may also be able to interrupt the vicious cycle of anxious thoughts and feelings with an increased sense of achievement at what you’re doing and a better understanding of your body and what you’re capable of.
Exercise and Stress
Ever noticed how your body feels when you’re under stress? Your muscles may be tense, especially in your face, neck, and shoulders, leaving many stress sufferers with back and neck pain or even painful headaches. You may feel a tightness in your chest, a pounding pulse, or muscle cramps. People under severe stress also report problems such as insomnia, heartburn and stomach ache. The worry and discomfort of all these physical symptoms can in turn lead to even more stress, creating a vicious cycle between your mind and body. Exercising is an effective way to break this cycle. As well as releasing endorphins in the brain, physical activity helps to relax the muscles and relieve tension in the body. Since the body and mind are so closely linked, when your body feels better so, too, will your mind. Exercise can also inject a bit of fun into your day to day stresses. Sometimes overcoming any stress you may be feeling can be done by having regular downtime that is based around having fun and doing something you enjoy. If you’re suffering from stress perhaps consider taking back up that sport you used to do that you loved but you stopped doing because you were so stressed, or maybe you could go for a brisk and active walk with a good friend. Just don’t make your exercise into another stressor or something you ‘have’ to complete, it’s all about having your fun downtime that is something good for you.
If you’re wondering just how much activity you’ll have to do to get the benefits you’ll probably be surprised and find it’s not as much as you think. You don’t need to devote hours out of your day to train at the gym, sweat buckets, or run mile after exhausting mile. You can reap all the physical and mental health benefits of exercise with 30-minutes of moderate exercise five times a week. Two 15-minute or even three 10-minute exercise sessions can also work just as well. Do as much as you feel like, you don’t need to be harsh on yourself if you don’t complete every session in a week. Exercising for your mental health benefits is about being kind to yourself and doing something great and positive for your well being. Even a little bit of activity is better than nothing. The more you exercise, the more energy you’ll have, so eventually you’ll feel ready for a little more and start enjoying it even more. The key is to commit to some moderate physical activity—however little—on most days. As exercising becomes habit, you can slowly add extra minutes or try different types of activities. If you keep at it the benefits will come.