We’ve long been aware of the physical benefits of exercise: Weight loss, improved heart and respiratory health, faster metabolism… But what about the benefits of exercise on our mental health? Well, psychological research shows just 2.5 hours a week of moderate exercise will result in a huge range of psychological benefits.
As a Personal Trainer, some of my clients want to exercise for purely physical fitness reasons. However, more often than not, they want to exercise to improve their low mood, stress levels or lack of energy.
Perhaps I’m so tuned in to this because tackling these issues is also one of the main reasons I exercise. Even when I've had no sleep and all I want to do is shop online and binge watch TV, even 15 minutes of stretching turns my mood around. My bank balance and brain give me a high five and a hug too.
So how does time working on our fitness improve our mental health so dramatically?
Fostering a sense of self-worth is so important - it's the positive lens that makes everything in life look brighter. We gain higher self-esteem when we exercise regularly because we are doing something positive for ourselves and working towards our goals. Reaching these goals, losing weight and becoming faster or stronger makes us feel brilliant about ourselves.
When you have high levels of self-esteem - setbacks and worries can often have less of an impact on your overall mood.
Issues with depression and anxiety can make you feel like you are losing control. Meeting measurable goals in your fitness regime - whether it's a better sprint time, increased reps, or the ability to hold a plank for longer - means you are taking control of your own progression, and smashing it. You are improving your fitness and showing yourself that you are the boss of your life. That life isn’t just chugging along and happening to you. You are happening to it.
You look at the chocolate mousse/pizza/night out with lashings of vodka - you think you’ll be happy if you have it.
You have it - you feel bad and sad and a bit gross, not to mention the hangover.
Sound familiar? Some things only feel good in the moment.
But when you exercise until your blood's pumping and you're out of breath, you get huge chemical hits of feel-good, that LASTS.
Exercise stimulates the production of endorphins. Endorphins are the Captain of happy hormones, natural painkillers and mood elevators - genuinely making you feel alive and positive.
Anxiety and stress can trigger our fight or flight reflex, flooding our body with cortisol and adrenaline - the stress hormones designed to get us to drop everything and hot foot it out of there.
Useful in life-threatening situations… But not so useful when you’re worrying about work deadlines. This is because a system flooded with stress hormones hinders the activation of our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that we use for reasoning and logical thought.
one of the psychological benefits of exercise is it releases the buildup of stress hormones in our systems. This allows us to slowly regain a handle on our reactions and respond in a rational, measured way.
Linked to the release of stress hormones. A backlog of Cortisol built up over the day can lead you to enter the brain churn as soon as your head hits the pillow. When your body is physically tired you’ll find not only easier to enter the sweet sweet slumber fest at night, you might also find you have a deeper sleep. Just really raising your all oversleep game. I must move on as a parent of a non-sleeping child this point is emotionally loaded…
Just done some burpees - feeling much more positive.
As we gain control in one area of our life - it develops our self-esteem, the things in our life that seem impossible to tackle become more manageable. Often a fitness routine can lead to a healthy diet. Whilst increasing the exercise levels you are doing each week will also boost energy levels and clarity of mind, meaning fewer sugar cravings and heavy eyelids come 3/4pm.
This is an aspect of exercise I really focus on with my clients: the activation of the mind/muscle connection. Once our attention settles on the body, we can momentarily release the churning thoughts and worries. Even just a short moment of mindfulness bringing perspective to our current reality. The repetitive rhythm of running walking can also be a great exercise in being present.
TRY: When you are next walking, bring your attention to the feeling of your feet making contact with the ground. How do your feet feel each step, is it different for each foot? Does the whole of your foot make contact? Are your strides relaxed or rigid?
Noticing these small details of your movement can help you to take your focus to the body and how it feels. This can be a great device in perseverance (in higher intensity exercise) when your mind seems to be screaming at you that you’ve done enough, take the focus to the breath, for five inhales and five exhales.
Binge watching Netflix and spending hours online or on social media are bad for your mental health - FACT - doing them in tandem - really quite pants on the ol’ nurturing activity barometer.
But oh my goodness, do these things feel like the most appealing thing at the end of a knackering/stressful/boring day. But, exercise can replace the need for these habits by providing us with a different way to switch off and escape repetitive thoughts. Feeling physically tired at the end of the day - not just mentally can also be the best shove to get you to just go to bed rather than switch on the TV.
So, there are many ways of using exercise for mental health and happiness, some behavioural and some chemical. But all important in bringing balance to your life and cultivating a sense of self-worth.
How does exercising help you? Reach out via social media and let us know!