Exercise and Mental Health

​It is important to change our view on exercise to not see it as  something we ‘have to do’ for our health, but as something that we do  because we personally value its positive benefits to our wellbeing. 

What is wellbeing? 

Wellbeing is a positive  physical, social and mental state. For this purpose,  I will focus on mental wellbeing. 

• Mental wellbeing does not have a single universal definition, but it does encompass  factors such as:

• The sense of feeling good about ourselves and being able to function well individually or in  relationships

• The ability to deal with the ups and downs of life, such as coping with challenges and  making the most of opportunities

• The feeling of connection to our community and surroundings 

• Having control and freedom over our lives 

• Having a sense of purpose and feeling valued. Of course, mental wellbeing does not mean being  happy all the time, and it does not mean that you  won’t experience negative or painful emotions,  such as grief, loss, or failure, which are a part of  normal life. However, whatever your age, being  physically active can help you to lead a mentally healthier life and can improve your wellbeing.

What impact does physical activity  have on wellbeing? 

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. 

Impact on our mood 

Physical activity has been shown to have a positive  impact on our mood. Researchers have found that people feel more content, more awake and  calmer after being physically active compared to after periods of inactivity. They have also found that the  effect of physical activity on mood is greatest  when mood was initially low.

There are many studies looking at physical activity  at different levels of intensity and its impact  on people’s mood. Overall, research has found that low-intensity aerobic exercise – for 30–35  minutes, 3–5 days a week, for 10–12 weeks – was  best at increasing positive moods (e.g. enthusiasm,  alertness).   


Impact on our stress 

When events occur that make us feel threatened  or that upset our balance in some way, our body’s  defences cut in and create a stress response,  which may make us feel a variety of uncomfortable  physical symptoms and make us behave differently,  and we may also experience emotions more  intensely.

The most common physical signs of stress include  sleeping problems, sweating, and loss of appetite.   Symptoms like these are triggered by a rush of  stress hormones in our body – otherwise known as  the ‘fight or flight’ response. It is these hormones, adrenaline and noradrenaline, which raise our blood  pressure, increase our heart rate and increase the  rate at which we perspire, preparing our body for  an emergency response. They can also reduce  blood flow to our skin and can reduce our stomach  activity, while cortisol, another stress hormone,  releases fat and sugar into the system to boost our  energy.  

Physical exercise can be very effective in relieving  stress. Research on employed adults has found that highly active individuals tend to have lower stress  rates compared to individuals who are less active. 

Impact on our self-esteem 

Exercise not only has a positive impact on our  physical health, but it can also increase our self-esteem. Self-esteem is a key  indicator of our mental wellbeing and our ability to  cope with life stressors and how we perceive our self worth.

Impact on Depression and Anxiety

Physical activity can be an alternative treatment  for depression depending on the individual. It can be used in combination with medication and/ or psychological therapy. It has few side effects  and does not have the stigma that some people  perceive to be attached to taking antidepressants  or attending psychotherapy and counselling.  

It causes the release of endorphins that improve your mood and make you feel happier. Exercise can also give you some time away from the hustle and bustle of daily life and can provide you with a great sense of purpose.

It can alleviate tension, stress and mental fatigue, give you a natural energy boost and improve your quality of sleep.

Physical activity can reduce levels of anxiety  in people with mild symptoms and may also be  helpful for treating clinical anxiety. Physical activity is available to all, has few costs attached, and is  an empowering approach that can support self-management. 
It is important that more  people are given the knowledge and support  they need to make physical activity a healthy yet  enjoyable part of life.

The Department of Health recommends that adults  should aim to be active daily and complete 2.5  hours of moderate intensity activity over a week  – the equivalent of 30 minutes five times a week.  It may sound like a lot, but it isn’t as daunting as it  first appears.


Where do you start?

Once you have decided that you want to be more  physically active, there are a few points worth  thinking about. Apart from improving your physical  and mental wellbeing, what else do you want to get  out of being active? 

Ask yourself whether you’d prefer being indoors or  out, doing a group or individual activity, or trying a  new sport. If you’re put off by sporty exercises, or  feel uninspired at the thought of limiting yourself  to just one activity, think outside the box and  remember that going on a walk, doing housework,  and gardening are all physical activities. Also,  would you rather go it alone or do an activity with  a friend? A friend or family member will push you when you need it the most. Social support is a great motivator, and  sharing your experiences, goals and achievements will help you to keep focus and enthusiasm. 

Overcoming barriers 

It can be a bit scary making changes to your  life, and most people get anxious about trying  something new. Some common barriers, such as  cost, injury or illness, lack of energy, fear of failure,  or even the weather can hinder people from getting  started; however, practical and emotional support  from friends, family and experts really does help.  

Body image can act as a barrier to participating  in physical activity. People who are anxious about  how their body will look to others while they are  exercising may avoid exercise as a result. For  women, attending a female-only exercise class  a ladies-only swimming session may help to  overcome anxiety as a barrier to initially starting to  exercise. 

Exercising with a companion can also help to  reduce anxiety about how your body looks to  others, and may be particularly helpful during the  first few exercise sessions. The environment can  also influence how you feel; gyms with mirrored  walls tend to heighten anxiety, as does exercising  near a window or other space where you might feel  ‘on show’. 

Make time 

What time do you have available for exercise? You  may need to rejig commitments to make room for  extra activities, or choose something that fits into  your busy schedule.

Be practical 

Will you need support from friends and family  to complete your chosen activities, or is there a  chance your active lifestyle will have an impact  on others in your life? Find out how much it will  cost and, if necessary, what you can do to make it  affordable. 

Right for you 

What kind of activity would suit you best? Think about the kind of exercise you were involved in when you were younger and start there. Think  about what parts of your body you want to exercise  and whether you’d prefer to be active at home or  whether you fancy a change of scenery and would  prefer to exercise in a different environment, indoors or outdoors.

Making it part of daily life 

Adopting a more active lifestyle can be as simple  as doing daily tasks more energetically or making  small changes to your routine, such as walking up a  flight of stairs. 

Start slowly 

If physical activity is new to you, it’s best to build  up your ability gradually. Focus on task goals,  such as improving sport skills or stamina, rather  than competition, and keep a record of your  activity and review it to provide feedback on your  progress. There are many apps and social networks  accessible for free to help. 

Goals 

It’s really important to set goals to measure  progress, which might motivate you.

Remember, you won’t see improvement from  physical conditioning every day. Making the  regular commitment to doing physical activity is an achievement in itself, and every activity session can improve your mood.

I hope everyone took a little something from this ☺

Michelle Greaney

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