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The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

There are an almost endless of reasons why regular aerobic exercise is good for your body and mind. It’s not a miracle cure, we’re not trying to pedal some kind of snake oil here, but exercise really can be the difference between living a proactive and healthy life and, well not!

Not only does exercise improve the way your body feels and moves; think stronger muscles and joints, lower blood pressure, better endurance... But more importantly, it can and in most cases does, have a profound impact on the way our mind thinks and feels too.

Now this shouldn’t come as a surprise, we’ve known for a long time just how important exercise is, but for just as much time, we have neglected it and our physical and mental health is potentially worsening as a result.

In today’s blog we are going to explore just how exercise can improve our mental health (prepare for a little science) as well as some ways we can all be a little more active in our daily lives.

The overall aim is to help everyone be a little more proactive in the ways we look after our overall health and wellbeing, both physical and mental.

 

What does exercise do to our brain?

No matter how old you are or what your fitness level is, we can always harness the power of exercise to improve our mood, energy levels, reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and cope with stress in a healthy and productive way.

Let’s look at the mechanics a little first. Quite simply, when we exercise our heart rate and respiratory rate increases relative to the exertion we are aiming to put out or indeed in response to environmental conditions like temperature.

Our body does this so it can increase the supply of rich, oxygenated blood to our muscles so that they can function optimally. But in doing so, we also increase the supply to our brain too.

At a much deeper level, exercise also has a major physiological influence on the production of certain chemicals called hormones that are involved in a whole host of body systems; including the regulation of mood and feelings of happiness.

You’ve heard of a runner’s high, right? That’s a by-product of the release of key brain chemicals: dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin, which play important roles in the regulation of our mood.

Serotonin in particular can also help to improve your sleep as an increase in serotonin creates is met by a natural response which increases another key hormone and neurotransmitter called melatonin.

Melatonin is heavily involved in regulating our circadian rhythms (body clock) and creating that feeling of sleepiness in the evening as well as helping you to get more quality sleep cycles during the night which again has a profound impact on your mental health.

It will also leave you feeling well rested and physically restored the next day, ready for you to tackle your next workout. And so the positive cycle of exercise, good sleep and mental health continues.

But I digress. Let’s turn to some of the most common problem areas when it comes to mental health and take a look at the ways exercise can interact and help manage symptoms.

 

Exercise and depression

Exercise can play a major role in the management of mental health conditions like depression and it’s not uncommon for exercise to be a prescribed intervention for those suffering with depression. Either as a solo intervention or in combination with other lifestyle modifications and or medication.

The best thing about exercise is that it provides all the benefits of medicinal therapies but without the nasty side effects. With the only side effects being occasional bouts of delayed onset muscle soreness and improved physical condition and exercise performance. Sign me up!

It does this by creating lots of little changes in the chemistry of the brain, reducing inflammation and releasing powerful endorphins, a key chemical indicator of just feeling good.

One of other benefits of exercise on conditions like depression, stress, anxiety and even ADHD, is that it acts as a mindful practice, a distraction and escape from negative feelings, thoughts and emotions which in turn produce a calming effect and further promote good mental health and wellbeing.

 

Exercise, stress and anxiety

When we are stressed and anxious, the muscles in our face, neck and shoulders can become very tense, creating tightness and in worse cases, acute pain. But by exercising, we actually contribute to the relaxation of muscles all over the body, relieving tension and the anxiety that it was causing.

Our mind and body are so interlinked, often if we feel better physically or mentally, that feeling will translate to the other.

 

Other benefits of exercise for our mental health

Up to this point we have looked at some of the more serious implications of poor mental health but also the positive ways exercise can change them for the better. We are going to continue that trend by discussing just some of the other ways that exercise simply brings a welcome boost to our mood, happiness, health and overall sense of wellbeing.

 

Exercise sharpens our thoughts and memory

Because of the all the positive chemical changes happening during and post exercise, the presence of endorphins not only makes us feel good, it actually improves our cognitive skills. Skills such as memory creation, recall, and concentration.

 

Exercise can be a social activity

Now, I know a lot of you prefer to exercise to alone but exercise can be a surprisingly social activity. So as much as it’s nice to have your own space, spending time with others can create a big uplift in your mood.  

Not only that, having a shared workout or fitness goal is a great motivator and there’s a surprising amount of evidence to suggest that we will work harder when exercising with others. Be careful not to let this enthusiasm run away with you though as pushing hard all the time is your fast track to overtraining, illness and maybe even injury too.

And all of this (and more) purely by participating in regular exercise!

 

But what do we mean by regular exercise? There’s a big difference between first time gym goers and Olympic level athletes but when it comes to daily physical activity where is the middle ground for you and me?

According to the NHS, adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity each week, spread evenly across 4 – 5 days or every day should you wish.

This doesn’t always have to be achieved in structured workouts, gym sessions or sports though. It can be achieved by simply being more active in your day to day life.

Walking more, commuting by bike, working at a standing desk, taking the stairs instead of an elevator. Anything you can do to reduce the amount of time you spend sitting or lying down, the better.

If moderate exercise is still a little sedentary for you. Shorter more vigorous bouts of exercise are also a great way to achieve your daily activity goals as well as condition your body in more specific ways.  

For example, running intervals, hill sprints and weight training all challenge us physically that little bit more as well as stimulate adaptation of key muscle groups and our cardiovascular system.

Well there you have it. And after reading this, you may agree that whoever said laughter is the best medicine may need to have a rethink. Although, laughter and exercise together? That’s some strong stuff!

 

If this article hasn’t quite tickled your fancy, we have another top drawer article for you. Earlier this year, U Perform co-founder Professor Greg Whyte put pen to paper to dive to better explain the intrinsic link between daily physical activity and the health and function of our brain. Prof Greg talks in detail about that link and what exercise and sports you could do to support the health and function of your brain; all whilst you are keeping fit and active too. It’s a win-win situation.

Greg’s blog is well worth the read so we highly recommend you head over there now. Just click the link - here

 

It’s worth noting that the content of this article and any of our others is by no means intended to act as formal diagnosis or treatment for mental health disorders of any kind. Should you have any concerns, please consult your registered medical professional to get the support and guidance you need.

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