Why exercise is good for your mental health

As you’ll know if you’re a regular follower of our blog, this month we are focusing on busy lives. How and why can we try to build in some time for a sport or activity, when there are so many demands on us? This week, we are focusing on one of the main reasons to try: mental health. Has your gym kit been lurking, unused, for too long? Or would you love to carve out some time for yourself, and just need a new hobby to give you the excuse? Whatever the reason for not quite yet getting active, we thought we’d take a look at how beneficial exercise can be for our mental wellbeing.

Research shows that physical activity is beneficial to our mental health in a variety of ways. Having some ‘me time’ and getting active helps to ward off stress and depression, and boosts your self-esteem as well. Even if you’re feeling ok, exercise can make you feel better, as it boosts hormones which improve mood and stimulates the areas of the brain responsible for memory and learning.

What do we mean by exercise?

We’re not talking here about suddenly taking up marathon-running or endurance sports (though hats off to you if that’s your thing). Anything that elevates your heart rate and gets you breathing a little faster counts: a brisk walk, for example. Just 10 minutes a day has been shown to help reduce the signs of depression and anxiety in people.

How does physical activity affect mental health?

Exercise pushes the body to release hormones and chemicals such as serotonin and endorphins, both of which are known to improve your mood and increase a feeling of happiness. By getting your heart rate up, more blood is pumped to the brain, making it work more effectively, so that you can think clearly. Physical activity has also been linked to increasing the size of the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory. Exercise makes your brain operate more effectively, improving neural pathways and creating healthier nerve cells. Hence the link between activity and a reduced risk of dementia.

For lots of people, physical activity gets them out of the house and into the wide open air. Being outside boosts vitamin D levels and helps us to connect with people, reducing feelings of isolation or loneliness. By joining a club or taking up a new sport or class, we meet people and make friends. It’s worth considering combining exercise with a social element to get the full benefit of activity for your mental health. Why not consider yoga, squash, golf or a running or cycling club? There are groups out there for every ability and degree of sociability.

Alternatively, getting away from it all is a balm for many of us. If you just want some time for yourself, hopping on a bike or going for a run or a walk are fantastic ways of carving out moments in the day which are just for you and your thoughts.

Whatever the case, exercise is key in terms of combating stress, depression and anxiety. What are your top tips for staying active during a busy day or week? How has exercise influenced your mental wellbeing?