Mental health and exercise: moving to a healthier mind
People’s ability to exercise has been challenged this year due to the lockdowns and restrictions we have faced as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Gyms, sports facilities and sports groups have had to stop their activities, leaving people who regularly use them with limited options for physical activity. Now winter is here with longer nights and poor weather, getting outdoors to exercise isn’t ideal either.
The impact this is having on people’s mental health should not be underestimated. Exercise can be a massive factor in the management of mental health and there is a significant amount of evidence to support this. This blog will highlight some of the evidence and showcase the importance of being active for a healthy mind and overall well-being.
More than keeping fit
Although most people are aware that exercise is good for our health, a lot of people don’t really understand why and usually only think about exercise as a way to keep fit and/or manage their weight. However, the benefits of exercise go far beyond this. A more positive perspective is to view exercise as beneficial to both our body and our mind, and this is truer than ever in light of the coronavirus pandemic and the negative impact it is having on people’s mental health.
Being confined to our homes, not seeing friends and loved one, loneliness, routine changes, job losses, strain on relationships… the reasons why many people are struggling with their mental health are clear. Recent reports have shown just how bad lockdown has been on the UK’s mental health, including an increase in rates of suicidal thoughts.
But exercise has been proven to improve our mental health. For example, the positive effects of aerobic exercise - such as jogging, swimming, cycling, dancing and walking - have been shown in people with high levels of anxiety and depression, with just a single session of exercise reducing anxiety and depression.
The link with anxiety is an interesting one. When we feel threatened, we go into ‘fight or flight’ mode, where we can experience sweating and our heart racing, which we associate with fear. Yet, we have these same bodily responses when we exercise. Regular exercise may help people who struggle with anxiety to become less likely to panic when they experience these sensations. It is as if we are learning to associate these fight or flight responses with safety and increased control rather than danger.
Exercise has also been shown to be effective in the treatment of clinical depression, with research suggesting that moderate regular exercise should be considered as a viable means of treating depression. Resistance training (weight training) has also been shown to help improve mood. Research suggests that resistance exercises may be beneficial for people with mild to moderate depression, and even more beneficial to people with more severe depressive symptoms.
Regular physical activity has further been shown to positively impact on self-esteem, and improve physical self-perception and mental well-being. An increase in physical activity can also be beneficial to people with sleep problems, and can help to elevate mood.
Exercising in a group (whether socially distanced or not), can have major benefits to our mental health. It offers an opportunity to meet new people and make new friends by being around like-minded people. It can also really boost your motivation, as you are exercising with others who can be encouraging and can even bring out your competitive side. Importantly, it can decrease feelings of loneliness. Exercising with others makes it a social activity, which can really make you feel a part of something and therefore, far less isolated.
The great outdoors
Exercising outdoors is a great way of being physically active, especially when going to a gym or sports club isn’t feasible. Research has shown clear benefits associated with physical activity and being outdoors, especially to feel more positive and more energetic. Evidence suggests that exercising in natural environments (such as outdoor environments with ample green space) is associated with improved mood, increased energy and an enhanced ability to focus attention.
But don’t let the winter put you off heading outside to get active. Being faced with colder temperatures can improve endurance. Your heart doesn’t have to work as hard, you don’t sweat as much, and you use less energy, which all means you can exercise more effectively. Exercising outside in winter can also help you to get exposure to sunlight, which may help reduce seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Are the benefits of exercise for our minds being ignored?
It has been suggested that exercise may be a neglected factor in mental health care, with exercise rarely being recognised in mainstream mental health care as an effective intervention.
Yet, as noted above, the mental health benefits of regular exercise are numerous, including:
- Stress relief
- Improvement in anxiety and depression
- Increased self-esteem
- Mood improvements
- Improved sleep
- Improved cognition and brain function
If you are struggling with your mental health, especially since the restrictions imposed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, trying to be more physically active could significantly improve how you are feeling. If you are not someone who would usually exercise on a regular basis, simply going outside for a walk can be beneficial. You don’t have to suddenly start doing highly intense exercise or exercise for long periods of time. It is about making a start to look after your mental health by regularly being more physically active in whatever way you can. You really can move your way to better mental health.