Exercise has long been associated with maintaining physical health and preventing diseases. However, recent research and medical insights have brought new benefits to light – indicating that exercise can have a profound impact on our mental well-being.
In this blog, 24/7 Fitness explores the often-overlooked connection between exercise and mental health,
Getting your blood flowing has long been known to simply be great for you. However, this was usually tied to the body, from a lower risk of heart problems to more toned legs. These days, we have studies that show that people who engage in regular physical activity experience a wide range of psychological benefits, too.
While specific exercises (like yoga or weight lifting) may vary in their effects, it is generally accepted that activities that get your blood flowing can have a significant impact on your mental health. Let’s look at this in greater detail:
- Fighting Depression: Research suggests that exercise can be as effective as antidepressant medications in treating major depressive disorder. Even short-term exercise programs have been shown to significantly reduce symptoms of depression.
- Anxiety Reduction: Exercise is not just beneficial for depression; it can also be a powerful tool in managing anxiety. Studies have found that regular physical activity reduces fatigue, improves concentration, and enhances overall cognitive function, making it an effective strategy for those dealing with anxiety.
How Does Exercise Affect the Brain?
Understanding how exercise impacts the brain helps us to understand its mental health benefits. Two key theories stand out from the crowd, and these are that exercise boosts serotonin and that it improves sleep.
Exercise increases the levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is targeted by antidepressant medications. This boost in serotonin contributes to an improved mood and emotional well-being.
Then there’s the sleep. Exercise is known to enhance the quality of sleep, and better sleep patterns can also lead to improved mood and reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression.
However, that’s not where the benefits end. Here are a few of the secondary effects:
- Endorphin Release: Exercise triggers the release of endorphins, which are associated with a positive mood. This “feel-good” effect can help combat symptoms of depression and anxiety, though this is not long-term.
- Muscle Tension Relief: Physical activity helps break down muscle tension, which can alleviate the physical pain and discomfort that is often associated with depression.
- Enhanced Self-esteem: Exercising regularly can boost self-esteem and create a sense of accomplishment, which is great for mental well-being.
- Interruption of Negative Cycles: Sometimes, we can get stuck in negative thought patterns. Exercise provides a break from these feelings, allowing you to focus on the present moment and experience more positive emotions. Or negative ones if you’re sweating in the gym. Either way, it takes you out of the mental space you were in, and you’ll feel better afterwards when those endorphins kick in.
How to Get Started with Exercising to Improve Your Mental Health
Getting started with an exercise routine can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Often, the biggest mistake people make is setting unrealistic goals, which leads to disappointment. And one of the major things we want to avoid here is disappointment in yourself. So, here’s a practical guide to get started:
- Start small: Begin with manageable goals, like taking a short walk 2-3 times a week. Once you’ve established a routine, gradually increase the intensity and duration of your workouts.
- Consistency is key: It’s more effective to exercise regularly at a lower intensity than sporadically at a high intensity. Find an exercise routine that you can commit to in the long term.
- Keep it interesting: Explore different types of exercise to keep things interesting and to find what you really enjoy. Whether it’s gyming, hiking, swimming, yoga, or dancing, choose activities you enjoy or think you could enjoy.
- Socialise: Exercise with a friend or join group fitness classes to make it a social activity. Socialising while exercising can also enhance the positive mental health effects.
Gary Lockwood, is the CEO of 24/7 Fitness, a national boutique gym chain, as well as a personal trainer and spin instructor. Gary is very involved in the health, wellness, and fitness industry, and regularly provides advice for those new to the world of fitness.