How Can Exercise Help Mental Health?
Most of us have heard the expression ‘healthy body, healthy mind’, but in all honesty, do we all take this claim seriously?
This article will briefly outline the concept of the expression and provide some valuable tips on how you can adapt your exercise habits to optimise your mental health as well as your physical fitness.
What is ‘Healthy’?
It’s widely accepted in society that the main characteristics of a typically healthy person comprise of a good physique (i.e. not overweight or underweight), a reasonable diet, limited intake of alcohol, stimulants, tobacco etc… and of course, regular exercise.
Unfortunately, what is rarely identified as a crucial part of a healthy lifestyle is good mental health, whether this is due to general oversight or social stigma, mental health is quite possibly the most important factor in day to day living and must not be ignored.
What are the dangers of ignoring mental health?
As humans, we are ridiculously complex beings- with thousands of ongoing processes in the body which serve to maintain our regular functioning 24 hours a day… and we all know our bodies are not shy about letting us know when something is wrong!
Changes in mood and emotion are other vital functions of the body which become crucial within the way we act and function, fear danger, feel hunger and crave necessary nutrition and the motivation to achieve goals.
If you broke a bone- you wouldn’t ignore the pain…Neglecting our emotions can be just as dangerous as ignoring physical pain and the consequences can lead to stress, spells of anxiety and even mental illness such as depression, bipolar, or anxiety disorder.
The rewards of looking after your mental health are valuable beyond all comprehension and promote a longer, higher quality life.
How can exercise help mental health?
Regular exercise is essential for leading a healthy lifestyle for a number of reasons, most obviously for maintaining a healthy heart, burning off excess calories to keep in shape, and to stay fit.
As well as the obvious physical benefits, regular exercise can also directly relieve stress, improve memory, and maintain the brains reward system through stimulating production and regulation of certain hormones. Below are just a few examples of the many benefits you can experience through regular exercise:
- During exercise your brain produces more of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is central in the reward system, this is the way your brain lets you know you have achieved something by giving you the ‘feel good’ factor. This has been proven to relieve symptoms of low mood and depression, and the ‘feel good’ factor actually works to entice you to want to exercise again!
- If you feel stressed, the physical symptoms can be effectively be treated with exercise. The feeling of ‘butterflies’ caused by stress is heavily influenced by high levels of epinephrine (aka adrenaline) – physical exertion actually helps channel epinephrine and disperse it through increased strength, stamina and focus. Habitual regulation of epinephrine levels can lead to better sleep, lower stress levels and to maintain a healthy appetite.
- Exercise can stimulate the production of the hormone serotonin in the brain, serotonin is commonly referred to as the ‘happy hormone’ and is responsible for mood, learning, sleep and numerous other important functions. This mechanism of action has been accepted by doctors worldwide as an effective treatment for mild to moderate cases of depression.
- During and after exercise you may experience a mild euphoric reward as exercise stimulates the production of endorphins which are hormones that give the feeling of pain relief and relaxation.
Forming habits and enjoying life
Whether or not you consider yourself the ‘exercising type’ there is always somewhere to start, across all popular Video Game consoles there are an array of sophisticated exercise programs, social clubs nationwide are offering Zumba classes, gyms are now cheaper than ever and it has never been easier to hire a 5-a-side football pitch for a social kick-about.
The most important part of becoming more active is to enjoy yourself, the social aspect of exercising can be a huge reward in itself, exercising alone can be fulfilling but making a regular social event out of it can make all the difference between a routine and a real hobby. Try bringing a spotter to your next lifting session, invite a family member to spin-class or even try something different and host a Wii fit or Xbox Kinect night for your circle of friends…
Tips to Get Started
- Workouts don’t have to be painful or lengthy, in fact, the most effective workouts can be as short as 30 minutes per session. Start within your comfort zone and gradually push yourself one step at a time, in a few short weeks you should see significant improvement in your morale and fitness.
- Remember a healthy diet is a great way to support an active lifestyle, try to keep a balanced diet, drink plenty of water and eat meals at regular intervals.
- If you’re exercising with a friend it is always a great motivational tool to have friendly competition, but always remember to support one another in your respective progress.
- When starting out do not be tempted to push yourself too hard, overdoing it can have negative impacts and injuries can occur which may significantly detriment your progress. Keep your goals realistic and be positive.
- Rome wasn’t built in a day, mental health benefits of exercise can kick in rapidly but some people react faster than others. Be patient and persist!
- If you have any concerns or worries about any aspect of your physical or mental health it is advisable that you consult your GP without hesitation.
Take home message
Whether you are in tip-top condition or feel the need for a positive change in your life, it is always worth acknowledging your well being – look after your mind and your mind will look after you. Get up, get active, and don’t forget to enjoy yourself!