8 Mental Health Benefits of Exercise
If you have a mental illness or disability, it can be more difficult to start or maintain a physical activity program. Active Ability’s experts explain the mental health benefits of exercise and provide some tips for making it part of your everyday life – regardless of your age, ability, or fitness level.
8 ways exercise benefits your mental health
1. Improved mood
Exercise triggers the release of ‘feel good’ chemicals in the brain and spinal cord (like endorphins and serotonin) which create feelings of happiness and wellbeing. Furthermore, exercise can give you a stronger sense of control and achievement from fulfilling a goal, fostering a positive mindset and better mood.
2. Decreased stress
When you’re under stress, your body goes into its ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ mode, which is related to activity of your sympathetic nervous system. This leads to symptoms like muscle tension, sweaty palms, raised heart rate and chest tightness. In turn, these symptoms can lead to more worry and stress, creating a vicious spiral.
Exercise can break this cycle. In addition to releasing feel good chemicals, exercise helps to bring the activity of your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous symptoms back into balance. This eases muscle tension and calms your mind.
3. Better sleep
Getting adequate quality sleep is vital for good mental health. You only need to sleep poorly for a night or two to know this can lead to irritability, difficulty concentrating and fatigue. Exercise can help you achieve a better quality and quantity of sleep. Physical activity helps to regulate your body’s circadian rhythms – the built-in body clocks that control your level of alertness. Even small amounts of exercise in the mornings or early afternoons can support better sleep patterns. If you’re exercising for better sleep, steer clear of vigorous activities in the hours before bedtime. If you like to exercise in the evenings, go for relaxing activities such as gentle yoga or stretching.
4. Reduced anxiety symptoms
Research has shown exercise can significantly reduce anxiety symptoms and that exercise programs are a viable treatment option for people with anxiety. This can be partly explained by exercise’s mood-boosting and stress-relieving effects. Exercise can also distract you from anxious thoughts, especially if you engage in activities that require concentration (such as team sports) or practice mindfulness as you move (such as focusing on your feet as you walk or the water moving over your arms as you swim).
5. Reduced depression symptoms
Exercise helps to alleviate depression symptoms in several ways. It leads to changes in the brain such as reduced inflammation, increased nerve growth, and the development of new pathways that promote feelings of wellbeing and calm. The endorphin release helps to lift your mood. Furthermore, exercise can help to break negative thinking patterns.
Research has shown that in people with mild to moderate depression, exercise is as effective a treatment as antidepressant medication – without the side-effects. Research also indicates that exercise can help to prevent depression from developing. Even moderate amounts of physical activity throughout the week can help.
6. Increased self-confidence
Regular exercise is an investment in your wellbeing. Sticking with it can foster a sense of achievement and self-worth. Furthermore, regular activity can help you feel more comfortable in your body. You might also experience positive changes such as feeling stronger and more energetic. These can add up to a boost for your confidence.
7. Improved concentration and memory
Improved concentration and memory
The effects of exercise on your brain can help you concentrate and retain what you learn. Research has shown that exercise stimulates growth of new brain cells (called neurogenesis) in the hippocampus – a brain area that’s important for learning and memory.
8. Social connections
Studies have shown that social connectedness is one of the keys to achieving strong mental wellbeing. Healthy relationships have been linked with lower rates of depression and anxiety and increased self-esteem and empathy. Exercise can be a great way to meet new people and make lasting friendships. You could try a team sport, join a group exercise program, or get involved in a group such as a hiking or swimming club. However, some people prefer to exercise on their own. It’s all about finding what works best for you.
Tips to help you reap the mental health benefits of exercise
Fortunately, you don’t need to sign up for an expensive program, wear fancy gear or get super-sweaty to benefit mentally from physical activity. Even small bouts of exercise can help your mental health.
Here are some tips for including more exercise in your everyday life.
- Find something you like – you’ll be more likely to persevere when you like what you’re doing, so the best exercise for mental health is one you enjoy. The options for physical activity are almost endless. Just a few examples include walking, swimming, boxing, dancing, gardening, bushwalking, resistance training, yoga, exercise classes and cycling. Pick one thing you like or mix it up if you enjoy variety.
- Start out slowly – every little bit of exercise you do is better than nothing. Start out with five to 10 minutes and build up gradually. If you haven’t exercised before or it’s been a while, or if you’re living with a disability, an accredited exercise physiologist (AEP) can design a program tailored to you. For example, they can design exercises for wheelchair users and people with specific conditions such as cerebral palsy.
- Be kind to yourself – if you have a mental health condition, some days can be better than others. Ideally, try to do something every day. In fact, even a few minutes of exercise can lift your mood, clear your head and boost your energy levels. But don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day. Start afresh tomorrow and keep going until exercise becomes a habit.
- Schedule exercise for when you have the most energy – some people prefer to exercise first thing while others do better later in the day. If you’re on medication for a mental health condition, this can also impact how you feel at different times of the day. Aim to fit your exercise in when your energy levels are highest. Alternatively, use a short bout of exercise to boost your energy.
- Eat well – an unhealthy diet can leave you feeling sluggish and lethargic. In contrast, a healthy, balanced diet helps to support energy production and supply the nutrients needed for good mental health. If you need support with your diet, a clinical dietitian can design a diet plan and advise you about healthy eating. If fatigue is an issue, read about eating to support your energy levels here.
- Stay hydrated – adequate hydration is vital for optimal energy. Keep a bottle of water with you and remember to drink before, during and after exercise.
- Ensure you’re comfortable – exercise is more enjoyable if you’re comfortable, so choose clothing and footwear to suit your chosen activity. Loose-fitting clothes and supportive footwear are suitable for most types of exercise. If you’re exercising outdoors, be sure to use adequate sun protection, such as a hat, long-sleeved shirt and sunscreen. It’s also important to be mindful of the weather. Avoid exercising in extreme heat or cold and dress to suit the conditions.
- Take small opportunities to be active – an easy way to increase your physical activity is by grabbing every chance to move. Climb the stairs instead of taking the lift, park further away at the shops, walk with a friend instead of sitting to have coffee, clean your house with some music on, pull weeds out of the garden – these are just a few ways to fit more exercise into your day.
- Make it social – exercising with a friend or family member is not only more fun, but it can also help you stick with a routine. Being accountable to someone else can help with motivation and perseverance. Plus, you’ll reap the mental health benefits of social connectedness.
- Reward yourself – feeling better mentally and physically is a reward in itself. However, some people are more motivated to exercise if they plan a reward for sticking to their goals. This could be something simple like a healthy smoothie or a warm bath after a workout. You might also like to plan rewards for achieving longer term goals, such as a night out with friends or a new outfit.
- Deal with any pain or injuries – if you have an injury, disability, or chronic condition that affects your mobility, you may need a modified exercise program. An accredited exercise physiologist or physiotherapist can assess your needs and create a personalised program that’s safe and effective. A physiotherapist can also help with injury treatment and pain management.
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