Exercise For Mental Health: How To Look After Your Mental Wellbeing With Exercise
We know exercise is great for the body – it makes the heart stronger, it helps improve your bones and joints, and also lowers your risk of certain illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. But how about using exercise for mental health? Exercise is a really effective tool for helping to improve mood and mental wellbeing.
Frequently under-utilised, exercise is a fantastic natural mood booster – there’s a reason that doctors prescribe physical activity to help manage symptoms of certain conditions. And no, you don’t need to be an athlete, play a sport or be a lycra-clad gym-lover for your mental health to benefit from exercise. Even those with limited mobility can benefit from movement; it’s about discovering the best way of being physical for you as an individual – what works for one person won’t work for another.
So, what counts as physical activity?
The UK Government advises that an adult aged between 19-64 should get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. The Cambridge Dictionary defines exercise as ‘Physical activity that you do to make your body strong and healthy’.
There are hundreds of – if not more – different styles of exercise and physical activity, whether it’s work-related or recreational: Walking is a good low impact option, whereas aerobic classes and dancing are more high impact but can be fun and motivational. It’s about moving your body in order to increase your heart rate, make you breathe faster and feel warmer. Most importantly, it should be an activity that you enjoy.
Why is exercise important for mental health?
“Our mood plays a big role in how we experience the world on a day-to-day basis and deal with situations. Exercise has a direct impact on mood which is why it’s such an important intervention and can be particularly helpful for those suffering with mental illness like anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder – conditions where low self esteem can be a common symptom. It is also a useful tool in stress reduction – no matter your age.” explains Dr Rafael Euba, Consultant Psychiatrist.
All this talk of exercise being good for you, but what does exercise do to the brain?:
- Physical activity increases heart rate which increases the amount of oxygen in the brain.
- When you exercise the brain recognises this as the fight or flight response. In order for your brain to protect itself it releases Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) which is a type of protective protein. This helps the brain to process information and remember it.
- Feel-good and stress reduction chemicals, endorphins and serotonin, are released, alongside norepinephrine which increases attention and motivation.
- Exercise can lead to improved memory function and it also facilitates information processing. Research reviewed in the British Journal of Sports Medicine looked at the link between exercise and cognitive abilities in those over 50 years of age and found that aerobic activity improves cognitive function.
How does exercise affect mental wellbeing and mood?
Exercise alone won’t stop you from getting a mental health condition, as mental illness is influenced by a wide variety of environmental and lifestyle and genetic factors. However, it is important as a tool for reducing the risk of, and managing symptoms of depression, stress and anxiety.
A study by Blumenthal published in Psychosomatic Medicine also found that it may have a positive influence on the risk of relapse. Results found that subjects that reported regular exercise had lower depression scores than their less active counterparts a year after being treated.
Exercise can help:
- Increase self-esteem
- Decrease the symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress
- Improve sleep. If you’ve slept well this can help you to feel better prepared to deal with challenges during the day
- Reduce stress
- Reduce the racing thoughts that are a symptom of anxiety
- Improve quality of life
- Increase mental alertness
- Improve learning
- Prevent brain aging
- Improve the symptoms of chronic pain
- Give you more energy
- Improve memory function
- Increase mindfulness. This can provide a useful distraction from the cycle of negative thoughts that accompany depression and anxiety
How to look after your mental wellbeing using exercise
Taking care of your mental health using exercise doesn’t need to be time consuming and doesn’t necessarily require you to take up a sport or join a gym (unless you want to, of course). We have suggested a few quick wins and ways to incorporate physical activity into your life below:
- Walk, instead of drive
- Get off the bus a few stops earlier and walk the rest of the way to your destination
- Take the stairs instead of the lift
- Walk to the shop or around the local park on your lunch break
- Arrange to do something active with friends or family, like a bike ride
If you have a family history of serious mental illness and are concerned about your own risk, our genetic testing for better mental health service can help.
If you feel like you’re in need of support and would like to discuss symptoms you are experiencing or would like to arrange for treatment here at The London Psychiatry Centre, please don’t hesitate to give our friendly administration team a call on 020 7580 4224.