In 2020, exercise for our mental health has proven more important than ever. We experienced the negative impacts of having limited time outdoors for exercise, and no access at all to our beloved gyms.
For many of us, this made it clearer than ever that moving our bodies has an incredible impact on our mental health just as much as it does our physical health.
To better understand all of this, we sat down with Mental Health UK’s Physical Activity Programme Manager, Barry Lloyd. Barry gave us his advice on why physical activity is so crucial to mental health, and how we can get motivated to get moving.
How does exercise improve our mental health?
Mental health is just as important as physical health and they influence each other. Doing things that help us to relax, make us feel happy or calm such as exercise are a normal part of taking care of ourselves and they contribute towards your mental health.
Exercise is key for good mental health. When we exercise our bodies release endorphins which make you feel good and improve your mood.
But there are lots of other ways exercise helps with our mental health such as: better concentration, better sleep and feeling more motivated. Keeping a routine can also be really good for our wellbeing and making exercise part of that weekly routine is a great way to boost our wellbeing.
How can I find the motivation to exercise?
Any activity is better than none. It could be as simple as going for a walk or playing with your kids outdoors.
It might also help to find a type of exercise you enjoy and will look forward to doing. It’s okay to not like running, you can always try dance workouts instead!
You could also invite a friend or family member to do it with you, or join a team. Being accountable might motivate you more and will help to turn exercise into a social activity. The evidence from our Physical Activity Project shows that motivation becomes higher when being active in a peer support group setting.
Make a plan with small achievable steps / goals can work for some people. Linking it to rewards once you achieve a goal can also work.
Can focus on fitness and nutrition become unhealthy? How can I manage this?
If your fitness and nutrition are causing difficulties in your day-to-day life, it could be a problem. If you’re worried about your mental health, ask for help early. The first step is usually to make an appointment with your GP. They can refer you to specialist support if you need it.
If you aren’t ready to ask for professional help speak to someone that you trust such as friend or relative.
I don’t enjoy going to the gym or running – what can I do to stay active?
You don’t have to start lifting weights or running to feel fit and healthy. Anything which increases your heart rate will count as exercise. You could join a local walking group, cycle, swim, play tennis or walking football, or yoga.
There are loads of online resources that are free to use – check out YouTube and our We Are Undefeatable campaign which focuses on how to be active at home.
What effect does nutrition have on mental health?
Eating healthy foods not only helps to keep us physically well, but it can have a positive impact on our mood, energy and ability to think clearly too. Here are some ways you can eat mindfully:
Eat regularly: when our blood sugar drops, we can feel tired and irritable. Eating regularly and choosing foods that release energy slowly, such as brown rice and sweet potatoes, will help to keep your sugar levels steady.
Stay hydrated: If you don’t drink enough, you may find it difficult to concentrate or think clearly.
Eat fruits and vegetables: Eating a variety of different coloured fruits and vegetables every day means you’ll get a good range of nutrients that help keep us healthy. Aim for minimum of 5 different fruits and vegetables each day.
Gut health: Our gut can reflect how you’re feeling inside. If you’re feeling stressed or anxious your digestive system can slow down or speed up. Healthy gut foods include fruits, vegetables and wholegrains, beans, pulses, live yoghurt and other probiotics.
Avoid caffeine: Caffeine is a stimulant, which means it will give you a quick burst of energy, but then may make you feel anxious or disturb your sleep, especially if you have it before bed.
Are there any specific exercises I can try to help?
All exercise can help to boost our wellbeing, you can also try mindfulness techniques. Mindfulness is taking notice of your thoughts, feelings and body sensations, as well as the world around you. It’s a great way to prevent us running on ‘autopilot’ as well as calming a busy mind.
You can even try mindfulness while you’re exercising. Start by noticing the sensations in your body, this is a practice seen a lot in yoga, but also is a technique used in mindful running. We can be mindful about more than just our body too ‐ the air moving around you, the food you’re eating etc.
Being active outdoors can be great for our wellbeing, either in the garden or an allotment, or a nearby park or green space. Gardening, or doing a project around the house is a good way to be active and also feel productive by completing a task.
Yoga and tai chi are also great forms of exercise to help you feel more aware of your breathing and your body.
Take Home Message
It’s clear that our mind and bodily health go hand in hand and it’s so important to keep both of them in check. All it takes is a little mindfulness to help us live more in the moment and take more notice of how our body and mind are feeling and if we need to take extra care of one or the other.
From small walks a few times a week, to lifting weights. It’s important to find what you love, however big or small, any bit of activity will have a positive impact on your mind.
Treat your mind with as much kindness as your body and vice versa, by feeding it not only with nutrient dense foods, but foods that make you feel good, mind and body.
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