We all know exercise is important for maintaining physical health but working out is also extremely beneficial for your mental health. As someone who regularly struggles with depression, I have a really good understanding of how important exercise is to help me manage my symptoms. In today’s Monday Matters, I thought I would discuss some of the reasons why regular exercise is so great for your mental wellbeing.
Boosts your mood
An energetic workout such as a brisk walk, a dance class or cardio at the gym releases endorphins AKA the feel good hormones into the body. These chemicals help to boost your happiness levels and can be great for alleviating anxiety and depression and any physical aches and pains you might have. Exercise also gives us something positive to focus on and can be a useful distraction from negative and anxious thoughts during periods of difficulty.
Increases energy levels
You might think that exercise will wear you out and make you feel tired, but the reverse is actually true. According to my research, moderate exercise helps to increase the level of mitochondria cells, which are directly responsible for producing energy. Also, a good workout boosts the circulation of oxygen in your body which makes you feel energised. Although you may feel worn out at the end of your exercise session, a few hours later, your energy levels should have picked back up, leaving you refreshed and invigorated for the rest of the day.
Fatigue is a common symptom of depression so by getting some exercise each day, even if it’s just a short walk or ten minutes of housework, you can combat the constant feeling of tiredness.
Promotes better quality sleep
As well as increasing your energy levels, exercise also helps to improve the quality of your sleep. You should find that you fall asleep more quickly and get more minutes of deep sleep, leaving you feeling refresh in the morning. It should be noted, however that you should avoid exercising for at least a couple of hours before bed as the production of those endorphins I mentioned earlier will leave you feeling buzzing, unable to switch off and struggling to sleep.
Improves self esteem
Self esteem is all about our perception of ourselves and how much value we place on our personal characteristics and qualities. Low self esteem can have a negative impact on our emotional wellbeing causing feelings of worthlessness and lack of self love. Exercise has been shown to have a really positive impact on our self esteem. As well as helping to put us in a more positive frame of mind which can make us feel better about ourselves, regular exercise can also boost our self esteem by:
- improving our body image
- helping us to feel more physically competent as we become stronger and more flexible
- giving us a huge sense of achievement as we create new habits and stick to them
- encouraging you to build friendships with others who are on a similar fitness journey or enjoy the same kinds of exercise
- helping us to feel more healthy as we observe the effects on our body and mind
Can combat social withdrawal and isolation
Mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression and schizophrenia can make us feel very lonely and cause us to withdraw from social situations such as talking and meeting with friends, going shopping, family get togethers etc. Even if you are struggling a little at the moment and don’t particularly feel like socialising, pushing yourself to take a walk in your local park where others are exercising or going to the gym when it is relatively quiet can help you feel a part of the community. Joining a class with other likeminded individuals can help combat feelings of isolation. I’ve attended a few yoga classes recently and although I felt really nervous about going, I met some really lovely people and felt super proud of myself for making conversation both with class attendees and the instructors.
Improves cognitive function
Cardio workouts i.e. those which raise our heart rate and get us sweating help to improve the function of the hippocampus. This is the part of the brain which processes and retrieves different kinds of memories. Moderate-intensity exercise can also boost other aspects of cognitive processing including thinking, problem solving, attention, language and learning. This can help us feel better about ourselves and increase our self confidence. Studies have also shown that regular exercise can also help to combat the cognitive decline associated with ageing.
Regular aerobic exercise has been found to be really effective at reducing stress levels. The production of endorphins in the brain can decrease tension, elevate your mood and generally make you feel good. Also, exercise that involves deep breathing, such as yoga and Pilates, can help you to relax by producing calming energy.
Feeling the benefits of being fully present
Certain types of exercise encourage you to be mindful by paying attention to the quality of your movements or holding poses. Yoga and Pilates may not get your pulse racing and endorphins flowing, but, as well as being great for improving strength, muscle tone and flexibility, the level of concentration required takes the focus away from your low mood, stresses or worries about your current circumstances and negative self talk associated with anxiety or depression. As one of my yoga teachers once said, you’re enjoying the benefits of a mini mind break or a mental holiday.
Ways to get active every day
There are so many great ways to increase the amount of physical activity you do each week. In order to stay motivated, it’s best if you choose things you enjoy and which easily fit into your daily life. Here’s some suggestions:
- Be active around the house and in the garden by doing moderate exercise such as washing the car, cleaning the windows, doing some digging, mowing the lawn or vacuuming every room.
- Arrange a fun weekly class to attend with a family member or friend. Popular choices include clubbercise, spinning (indoor cycling, often done to loud dance music), bums and tums and body pump.
- Enjoy a weekend woodland walk, immersing yourself in the environment and forgetting about life’s stresses and strains.
- Dust off your bike and head to a country park for a spot of cycling. Safer than riding on the roads or pavements and the paths often include some inclines to really work your legs!
- If you’ve just got 10 or 20 minutes, try an online workout. There are plenty of short fitness videos on YouTube and you can choose which part of your body you want to work on such as legs, glutes, arms or tummy.
- Try Nordic walking which involves using a pair of walking poles. Not only do your legs get a good workout, you will also be using your arms and engaging your core.
- Join your local gym and ask a personal trainer to help you create a workout to suit your current fitness levels and target specific parts of your body you’d like to tone.
- Put some fast tempo music on whilst you do a spot of dusting and dance your way around the furniture and various rooms.
- Get off the train or bus a stop early and walk the rest of the way.
- Search for local walks and hikes online and and pick one out each weekend to go on with your partner or a friend.
- If you have kids or grandkids, encourage them to be active and spend time as a family doing something sporty such as having a kick about, taking some netball or basketball shots, riding a bike, playing frisbee or having a game of tennis in a nearby park. You could even pack a nutritious picnic for when you’re done!
- Walk or cycle instead of taking the car.
- Go for a swim – it’s a great full body workout, low impact and easy on your joints. Or, if you like being in the pool, but, like me, you’re not so good at swimming, try an aqua aerobics class.
N.B. Please bear in mind that the above are examples of ways in which you might get yourself moving and begin to enjoy the many benefits of exercise. I am in no way an expert on exercise and it’s best to consult with your doctor prior to beginning any exercise programme or upping your physical activity levels, especially if you have not exercised for some time or if you have a particular medical condition or concerns.
Regular exercise can be quite costly if you join a gym and attend classes regularly. However, there are many inexpensive or free exercise options if you are on a tight budget. I’m currently signed up to a programme which gives me free access to my local gym and wellness centre for 12 weeks and I’m making the most of it by regularly working out at the gym and also trying out some of the classes which are available.
It might be a good idea to do some research online to see if there are any special deals or programmes on offer in your local community, Or, you could find out if there’s a recovery college nearby which might have some physical activity based courses to become involved in to help you manage mental health difficulties such as depression and anxiety. Walking is also a free or inexpensive way of getting moving and if you are hoping to socialise with others, many towns and cities have local walking groups available to people of all levels of fitness.