How does exercise improve mental health?

Fitness, Happiness
smiling man

It’s amazing what a casual conversation can do. I recently received this from a business colleague:

“following on from one of our chats 4 years ago I started jogging/running every 3 days for 3-4 miles and re-commenced 5-a side football once a week. You had said that exercise was positive for the mind and after a bit of initial reluctance of the body, I now enjoy the runs and have benefited from better mental well-being and physical well-being.”

I don’t remember our actual conversation, but he clearly does. I definitely didn’t know he was struggling in any way with mental health issues. Like many, particularly men, he was always cheerful when we spoke. He gave no indication that he was struggling in any way at all. But I obviously must have said the right thing to him.

Benefits of exercise for mental well being

The Australian government explains one of the benefits of exercise for your mental health like this:

“Exercise pumps blood to the brain, which can help you to think more clearly.”

Being able to think more clearly will definitely benefit your mental health, but there are many other benefits for your mental health when you take exercise.

The British mental health charity MIND says this on its website:

There are many studies which have shown that doing physical activity can improve mental health. For example, it can help with:

  • better sleep – by making you feel more tired at the end of the day
  • happier moods – physical activity releases feel-good hormones that make you feel better in yourself and give you more energy
  • managing stress, anxiety or intrusive and racing thoughts – doing something physical releases cortisol which helps us manage stress. Being physically active also gives your brain something to focus on and can be a positive coping strategy for difficult times

The Mayo Clinic agrees:

“Exercise helps prevent and improve a number of health problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis. Research on depression, anxiety and exercise shows that the psychological and physical benefits of exercise can also help improve mood and reduce anxiety.

“The links between depression, anxiety and exercise aren’t entirely clear — but working out and other forms of physical activity can definitely ease symptoms of depression or anxiety and make you feel better. Exercise may also help keep depression and anxiety from coming back once you’re feeling better.”

The Mental Health Foundation says:

“Physical activity has a huge potential to enhance our wellbeing. Even a short burst of 10 minutes’ brisk walking increases our mental alertness, energy and positive mood.

“Participation in regular physical activity can increase our self-esteem and can reduce stress and anxiety. It also plays a role in preventing the development of mental health problems and in improving the quality of life of people experiencing mental health problems.”

woman working out and looking happy

I hope you are convinced that exercise can help your mental health. One of the big problems, of course, is persuading yourself to do it when you are feeling anxious and/or depressed. You may want to stay in bed and not interact with the world at all. You may be finding the struggle to put on a cheerful face so exhausting that you don’t want to do anything else at the end of the day.

How to get yourself to exercise when you don’t feel like it

So, it may not be easy. It may be a struggle. You may fail some days. It’s important you don’t end up feeling worse because you’re not exercising. So start small.

The Mayo Clinic says:

Certainly running, lifting weights, playing basketball and other fitness activities that get your heart pumping can help. But so can physical activity such as gardening, washing your car, walking around the block or engaging in other less intense activities. Any physical activity that gets you off the couch and moving can help improve your mood.

You may want to start by adding a single activity each day. Here are some examples:

  •  Get some dumb bells and commit to doing 10 repetitions of one exercise each day.
  • Commit to parking as far away from the shop entrance as you can.
  • Get off the bus one stop early and walk the last bit.
  • Clean your teeth standing on one leg in the morning and the other leg in the evening. (Balance is an important part of any exercise programme.)

Get the idea? These are simple things that don’t demand a lot of self-discipline to add to your life. Once you are happy with that, add more until you have a real exercise programme. You will feel the benefit.

Being depressed and anxious are reasons to exercise. The benefits for you if you are struggling with mental health issues are much more than for people who aren’t.