Seven ways exercise can boost your mental health
How exercise benefits mind, body and spirit – especially in lockdown
A blast of outdoor exercise helps beat the winter blues
Exercise is a sure-fire way to get the ‘happy hormones’ flowing. ‘Runner’s high’ isn’t actually a myth. Strong cardio activity creates changes in hormonal and brain chemical activity which induce feelings of happiness. The chemicals normally associated with exercise are serotonin, endorphins and dopamine.
Working out on a regular basis will stimulate the production of serotonin, which helps to regulate mood and, in some cases, alleviate symptoms of mild depression. It’s also important for healthy digestion. Given that a large proportion of serotonin is found in the gut, combine your exercise routine with a super-nutritious diet to keep serotonin levels boosted to the max.
Cardio exercise can also trigger an endorphin and dopamine rush; this is often what keeps fitness fanatics coming back for more. Endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers, inhibit the transmission of pain signals in the body and in doing so promote a feeling of ‘happiness’. Dopamine is associated with the feelings of pleasure after a goal is reached. In theory, therefore, the more you exercise, the more dopamine you release and the better you feel.
It helps you to think positive
Exercise greatly enhances self-esteem. Physiologically it allows the ‘happy hormones’ to kick in, and psychologically it can also engender a strong sense of achievement.
Goal setting is a great way to keep your fitness momentum going and experience this sense of achievement. From a 5km run to a marathon, paddleboarding to kick-boxing, now’s the perfect time to set yourself a new outdoor challenge. Whatever your particular physical aspiration, success in achieving it is incredibly empowering. And the added bonus of a strong, fit body will do wonders for your self-esteem.
It relieves tension and stress
Stressful situations, trauma, or constant worry can cause a variety of unpleasant physiological effects on the mind and body. Two of the most common involuntary reactions to high levels of prolonged stress are an increased heart rate and shorter, shallower breathing. Both will end up exacerbating the anxiety that caused it in the first place.
The good news is that by doing exercise and breathing techniques – two natural stress-busting measures – you can manage your anxiety levels long term. A regular cardio workout will strengthen the heart and boost endorphins, while improving your breathing technique through deep, meditative, intentional breaths will trigger a sense of overall calm. If practised frequently, intentional breathing will also stave off the debilitating effects of panic and tension. Try this simple breathing exercise at home:
Find a comfortable place to sit and focus on good posture by sitting up tall. Keep your shoulders square but relaxed, and keep your ears in line with your shoulders. With eyes closed:
- Inhale through the nose, taking the breath deep into the bottom of the lungs. You will feel your stomach swell as your lungs inflate with the fresh intake of oxygen. Slowly count to four as you inhale.
- When you finish the inhalation, hold your breath and count to four again.
- Then exhale slowly through the nose to the count of four. Draw your navel back towards your spine, and gently engage the pelvic floor muscles.
- When you finish the exhalation hold your breath for the count of four.
- Repeat for at least 10 breath cycles.
It improves focus and helps you stay alert
Exercise is a great way to focus the mind, bring awareness to the rhythms of the body and banish the day’s mental clutter. Yoga is a particularly effective way to concentrate the mind and engender a feeling of calm. The physical postures of yoga (asanas) require considerable dedication and focus, as well as balance skills, attention to the body’s alignment and high levels of proprioception (awareness of the body’s spatial positioning). If practised regularly it will enable you to find mental and physical equilibrium.
If you can’t manage to get to a live class, there are innumerable streamed classes and workshops to choose from online, which cater for all abilities and vary in intensity, time and style. Glo yoga is a great website offering a vast array of professional workouts. For £15 per month you can access yoga classes, Pilates classes and guided meditations.
You'll enjoy a better quality night's sleep
If you can’t seem to settle at night and have slipped into a pattern of wakeful, dreamy sleep, a good blast of exercise and fresh air every day will help to re-establish good sleep habits. The sleep/wake cycle is one of the main circadian rhythms in the body. The hormone serotonin, which is released during exercise, helps to regulate these rhythms, in turn promoting better quality sleep.
Top off your exercise blast with a long hot bath with a few drops of lavender oil (to promote relaxation) at the end of the day, and you’re likely to sink into a night of deeply restorative slumber.
It improve your posture and relieves pain and mental fatigue
Over time, habitual lazy posture can lead to muscular and joint pain. Hours spent in front of a computer, slouched in front of a television or behind the wheel of a car are just a few of the things in modern-day life that can lead to back, neck and shoulder problems. These can cause tension headaches, which in turn bring stress, irritation and low mood.
Minimise this chronic long-term pain by correcting the bad posture that causes it. Yoga, Pilates and ballet barre classes are all great ways to improve your body’s alignment.
Outdoor exercise is also a digital detox
Switch off your smart devices for a 24- or 48-hour period and you will reap a cocktail of health benefits. Taking a break from Instagram, for example, will relieve the constant comparison that can cause poor self-esteem and anxiety. Your sleep quality will improve, too, as the blue light from screen time affects melatonin production. You’ll also benefit from better posture as phones are a big trigger of ‘tech-neck’.
If you decide on a digital detox, replace the screen time with long, blustery walks, meditation and quality relaxation for maximum effect.