Moving Towards Better Mental Health: The Power of Exercise

  • Jul 14, 2023
  • Posted by Dr Matthew McCourt

Moving Towards Better Mental Health: The Power of Exercise

It can be easy to think about our wellbeing as existing in two camps – physical health and mental health. In reality there is much overlap, and instead we can benefit from seeing them as two pieces to the same puzzle. Call it health, or wellbeing, it is worth understanding a bit more about how our physical activity and mental health are connected.

The Benefit of Exercise on Mental Health

Exercise isn’t just about physical health and aesthetics. It also plays a crucial role in maintaining and enhancing mental health. The evidence behind the connection between physical activity and mental health overwhelmingly suggests that exercise supports successful brain functioning. It highlights how reduced activity levels can have a negative impact on our mental health, and that mental health difficulties can make us less likely to want to engage in exercise. This creates a “vicious cycle”.

So, what good can exercise do for our mental health? Well, some research has shown that exercise can improve mood and self-esteem, as well as lower stress and anxiety. While exercise can provide us with some distraction from daily stressors – which is important to have, as long as it doesn’t become obsessive or lead to avoidance of difficulties – it brings a sense of “mastery” and “self-efficacy” (i.e. being skilled at things, and believing that you can do something).

When we exercise, we change the physiological and chemical state of our bodies and brains – one key change is the reduction of the stress hormone, cortisol. This neurobiological change is so significant that some studies have shown that exercise can be as effective in improving anxiety and depressive symptoms as medication, or cognitive behavioural therapy (a common therapeutic approach used for treating anxiety and depression).

The Importance of Consistency

To get the most out of exercise (on our physical or mental health), it should be done consistently over time, rather than sporadically. Not only will these results be the most effective, but they will also be the most sustainable. A consistent approach is key.

This can be as simple as engaging in 15 minutes of exercise 3 times per week – Yu Chen Chang and colleagues found that this has been shown to be significantly associated with a lower risk of depressive symptoms. Similarly, other studies found that 20 – 40 minutes of aerobic exercise has been shown to improve anxiety and mood for several hours – which is a great return on investment.

“So, what can I do?” – 3 tips for developing healthy, sustainable exercise routines:

The short answer – anything. Honestly. But for more detail, keep reading.

Tip #1: ConsistencyAs mentioned, the evidence suggests that even short but consistent engagement in exercise is enough to create positive changes in mood, anxiety, and self-esteem. This doesn’t have to be a full workout programme, or training for marathons. This can be as simple as going to an exercise class a few times per week, or getting out for a walk, enough to get the heart rate rising.

Tip #2: Reward yourselfYou want to form a habit around exercise and the best thing for habit formation is repetition and reward. Repetition is something we have control over by way of being able to plan our days and weeks. Reward will come in the form of the above benefits on our mental health, but it can also be manufactured. Could you walk to the coffee shop or restaurant, rather than drive or take a taxi? Instead of sitting in a café when you meet a friend, could you get a takeaway drink and go for a walk (either outside or indoors, temperature dependent)?

Tip #3: Pace yourselfWe’ve all been there; it’s Sunday night, you decide to start exercising again, so you make a plan and go on Monday to “start the week right”. You push yourself a bit harder (perhaps to ease some guilt or try and do what you could before), which leads to aches, pains, and possible injury. As a result, your ability to exercise consistently decreases as does your motivation, which can impact your self-esteem, confidence, and mood. Instead, you want to take things slow, particularly if you are just starting back after some time off. Set a realistic goal and remember that 2, 3, or 4 smaller, lighter periods of exercise are better than 1 blow-out – we want consistency. So start slow, and build gradually.

This isn’t to say that all you have to do to feel better is exercise, it’s important to stress that. Exercise is not a magic cure-all for mental health difficulties. But it can be a powerful tool in your wellbeing journey. If you are struggling with anxiety or low mood, please do reach out to us to enquire about how we can help.

Written by: Dr Matthew McCourt
Clinical Psychologist at Sage Clinics

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