In today´s hectic world we are constantly bombarded with messages, advertising and real life examples of health and fitness. Just look at the millions of pictures uploaded on social networks and you will see how getting in shape is high on the priority list of many people. So, it is fair to say that we are more aware than ever of the physical benefits of doing regular exercise and eating healthy food, but are we as aware of the positive effects exercise has on our mental health?
More significantly, with the recent year of ´upheaval´ caused by the dreaded ´C´ word, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of people having mental health issues, and this has opened up a lot of discussion and focus on helping people get their mental health back on track.
As far back as the ancient civilisations, the link between a healthy mind and body has been accepted, to quote the Latin phrase “mens sana in corpore sano”. But how exactly does exercise affect our mental health?
Here are just some of the areas that will benefit your mind if you move your body and start doing some regular exercise to work-out your brain as well as your body.
Boost your confidence and self-belief
- Not only does doing exercise produce endorphins and release ´feel good´ chemicals into our brain, but it also has the added benefit of building our confidence and self-esteem. Accomplishing a workout and becoming fitter and stronger makes us feel better about ourselves and gives us a sense of achievement, which, bit by bit, raises our emotional interpretation of ourselves. Training also gives us a positive attitude, and as we gradually hone and improve our physical skills we start to believe that even if we can’t do something right now, we will improve, we have the strength to persevere, and that we can reach our goals, which is a good mind set for sport and for life in general.
Positive messages of reinforcement
- Whether you choose to join a team, do a group class, train in a gym, run in the park, or follow a fitness video in your living room, you will be spending time connecting, watching and participating with others. The verbal encouragement from other people (whether it’s through a YouTube video, or a fellow team member) with positive messages like ´keep going´, ´you can do it´ etc., has the beneficial impact of sending positive messages that assimilate in our brains. Talking positively to ourselves is one of the best ways that we can turn off the negative voice in our heads that often takes over when our mental health is suffering.
Making connections and developing relationships
- In addition, working out with others also helps us to build connections and relationships and develop a wider support network of people who we feel we have something in common with. Often someone who starts out as a stranger at the other side of the gym can become a good friend, who you not only exercise with, but also socialise with outside of the exercise environment, boosting our mental health through increased social interactions. Team sports or training with a buddy also give us the opportunity to work together, and to help or be helped, which also opens up our brains to know that we have symbiotic support framework, that we give and we receive, and that we are not alone.
Reducing stress and anxiety
- If you look at the science, exercise has been proven to reduce the cortisol levels in our body, which are linked to stress, and release endorphins, which not only gives us an end of work-out ´high´ but also helps calm us down and combats feelings of anxiety. Added to which, exercise is a great way of distracting us from the stress and anxiety we experience in day to day life. You can choose from a range of sports, be it a high impact activity like boxercise, to relieve and fight stress by literally smacking it in the face, or a more relaxing and spiritual activity like yoga which includes mindfulness to refocus our attention on our breath and being present in the moment.
Dealing with depression
- If you are suffering from depression exercise is likely to be one of the last things on your mind, but staying at home on the sofa becomes a vicious circle that increases those depressive feelings and, in turn, makes it even less likely for us to move out of the dark place we feel stuck in. Going for a short walk each day, getting out into nature and being in natural light all combine to help to lift our mood and can be a great example of how even just a little bit of exercise affects our mental health in a positive way.
- Physical exercise has also been linked to maintaining or improving cognitive function, such as attention, concentration, decision making and skill development. Doing exercise gives your brain new information to process, which helps keep different parts of your brain active and ensures that our most precious muscle is working and in good shape. Indeed, in studies of dementia, exercise has been found to be a protective factor which helps to minimise the decline of certain brain functions, such as memory, that unfortunately come with getting older. So, doing exercise really does contribute to both looking and feeling younger, in body and mind.
These are just a summary of the ways that exercise affects mental health in a positive way, but you can find a wealth of both scientific research and expert advice online. A good place to start are dedicated mental health organisations, such as mentalhealth.org.uk who have online articles and downloadable pdfs which outline these benefits in more detail.
If you prefer watching videos, there are also some really interesting short videos on ted talks which focus on the health of the body and the brain, which you can watch for free.
Another recommendation is to find a visual infographic that you like, which you can print out and put in the front of your diary, or on your fridge as a reminder of the benefits you can reap from adding exercise into your day.
As a final point, my advice is that the first step is to acknowledge that regularly doing something active is extremely good for your mind, body and soul.
Start small and don’t over commit – it is better to go for a 10 minute walk each day, and gradually build up your stamina or fitness regime, than it is to tell yourself you will do a 1-hour workout each day, and then feel worse when you fall off the wagon after day 3. Remember, you don’t have to commit to going to the gym for hours each day, you just have to take the first step out of the door and go for a short walk to start feeling the benefits, psychologically as well as physically.
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