We are all aware of the positive impacts that exercise can have on our body, from weight loss to muscle growth to heart function. A lesser-known fact is how beneficial exercise can be for your mental health. Rather than viewing physical activity and exercise as a chore, or something we have to do, we should start seeing it as something we ought (or even want) to do to benefit our mental and physical health.
Physical activity has huge potential to enhance our well-being, and many studies have found that regular physical activity can reduce stress and anxiety. Furthermore, exercising can be pivotal in the prevention of mental health problems and making sure you don’t develop negative mental health symptoms in the first place.
One study asked people to rate their mood immediately after periods of physical activity (e.g. going for a walk or doing housework) and periods of inactivity (e.g. reading a book or watching TV). The findings showed that participants felt more content, more awake, and calmer after being physically active compared to after periods of inactivity. Interestingly, they also found that the effect of physical activity on mood was greatest when the mood was initially low.
So, why do aerobic exercises such as jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, dancing, etc. improve your mood and reduce anxiety and depression? OK, bear with me! During physical activity, there is an increase in blood circulation to the brain and a subsequent influence on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. When you are physically active, this HPA axis communicates with the parts of your brain that control motivation, mood, and fear in response to stress. It can also play an important role in the part of your brain that forms memories.
This symphony of brain waves ignited during physical exercise improves self-esteem and cognitive function, reducing anxiety and depression, and having an overall positive impact on your mental health.
My Own Experience
I used to exercise and work-out solely for the physical results. I played sports, so it was necessary to keep in shape anyway. After I finished college I moved to Vietnam and my structured sporting routine went out the window. Up to that time, I had always been playing something, whether it be hurling, rugby, or soccer. Then, all of a sudden, I wasn’t.
To add to this, I tore my ACL shortly after moving to Vietnam. Any of you who have had the misfortune of tearing your ACL will know the story. Typically, you would be out of action for around nine months. But in my case, where there was no major rush to be back playing for any team, it was more like two years before I was playing anything competitively. Rehabbing a knee after an ACL surgery is a tedious process, but it did force me to attend the gym on a regular basis.
As a result of being immersed in a sporting environment throughout my life, I am naturally competitive. So, at the beginning of the rehab, I found it boring not to have any competition. After a while, I realised that this was the way it was going to be for the foreseeable so I may as well make the most of it! I began competing against myself, seeing if I could beat whatever I did the week before.
Exercising slowly transitioned from something I should do to something I thoroughly enjoyed doing. Seeing results and keeping in shape is nice, but it was the positive impact it had on my mental well-being that had me hooked. The release of endorphins and serotonin you experience during exercise is addictive and makes you feel great. I developed greater self-esteem, which resulted in more energy and confidence. But most importantly, if you have a lot going on in your life (work, school, family, relationships) and start to feel overwhelmed, I find nothing clears the head and relieves stress like a strenuous training session.
Today, if there is an extended period where I have been neglecting any sort of exercise, I can feel my general mood worsen. I wouldn’t have nearly as much energy as I would when I was getting in that 45 minutes to an hour of physical activity every other day. I have found that this, mixed with a moderately healthy diet, does wonders for my head, and is now more a part of my lifestyle than it is a chore.
Just to emphasize, I am not an expert, personal trainer, sports scientist, or wannabe influencer. This is merely my first-hand experience of how exercise has impacted my mental health. Obviously, every individual is different, but the science indicates that I am not alone in receiving benefits from exercise.
There are a number of other facets of your life that exercise can positively contribute to. Other benefits include:
- Improved sleep
- Increased interest in sex
- Better endurance
- Stress relief
- Improvement in mood
- Increased energy and stamina
- Reduced tiredness that can increase mental alertness
- Weight reduction
- Reduced cholesterol and improved cardiovascular fitness
Where to begin?
Everybody gets enjoyment from different activities. Just because you see someone going to the gym and exercising that way doesn’t mean that is the way you have to do it. One of the best ways to begin doing physical activity is by doing something you enjoy. This way, it does not feel like a chore.
Practical concerns, such as a busy schedule or poor health, can act as barriers to exercise. But for a lot of people, the biggest challenges are mental. Start off slow, walking, gardening, or cutting the grass, and try to moderately increase the amount you do as the weeks go on. A little exercise is better than nothing at all.
Don’t be disheartened by your initial lack of fitness or body shape. It would be insane to think that you will see physical results immediately. The mental results, on the other hand, can be felt a lot quicker, so stick to it. Realistic expectations are also vital. Expecting too much too soon leads to disappointment. The main thing to focus on is consistency rather than results to begin with!
What Do You Have to Lose?
Whatever your reason is for wanting to exercise, whether it is to slim down, beef up, or play sports, the added benefit for your mental health is a common denominator. So, if you aren’t liking whatever form of exercise you are doing, switch it up until you find one you do. Hopefully, your mental health will reap the rewards.