How exercise can benefit your mental health

Getting active is great for your mind as well as your body (and your general health).

While the benefits of exercise for our physical health are well-known, getting active also provides lots of positives for your mental health.

Research suggests exercise could play an important role in preventing the onset of mental health conditions such as depression. Another large-scale study has also linked exercise to improved mental health. A total of 33,908 healthy adults were tracked over an 11-year period to monitor their wellbeing. The research, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, found regular exercise (of any intensity) provided protection against depression.

To find out more about why exercise can be so beneficial for your mind, we’ve spoken with three mental health and fitness experts.

Mature woman exercising for mental health outdoorsCredit: Shutterstock/PeopleImages.com – Uri A
Exercise is great for your mental as well as physical health

“Exercise benefits your mental health immensely”

Your physical and mental health are intertwined, but it’s common to focus more on the former. Dr Hana Patel, a specialist mental health GP based in London, explains: “Most people see their physical health as being more important but, ultimately, the two directly affect each other,” she says. “Exercise benefits your mental health immensely. When you exercise, your brain makes chemicals called endorphins that make you feel happy. It also increases your sense of wellbeing and helps you to feel more relaxed.”

The physical benefits of regular exercise, such as having higher aerobic and muscular fitness, could also be linked to better mental health several years later.

University College London researchers carried out a study on 152,978 UK Biobank participants aged 40 to 69, to monitor their baseline aerobic fitness over seven years. They found having low fitness levels could greatly increase your chances of experiencing anxiety and depression. They estimate this could add up to a 60% greater chance of anxiety and a staggering 98% increased chance of developing depression later in life.

How exercise can help to reduce stress and anxiety

When you feel stressed or anxious, this can be felt in your body. For example, you may experience more muscle tension, and stress and worry can also cause existing pain conditions to be aggravated. The good news is the endorphins released when you’re active can have a very positive impact on this.

“The natural chemicals in the brain that are released when you’re active can help to make you feel good but they can also help with managing feelings of pain and stress,” explains Smriti Joshi, lead psychologist at Wysa, a mental health app.

Exercise has also been shown to improve sleep, which is often disrupted in people with depression. Getting enough restorative sleep can help to improve your mood and overall wellbeing. Regular exercise can also help to improve self-esteem and self-confidence, and this can be particularly important for people experiencing depression.”

Silver-haired lady smiling after exerciseCredit: Shutterstock/pics five
Exercise releases feel-good hormones

Exercise can also help you to feel more positive

Having a brighter outlook can help to make life feel that little bit easier, so exercise is a great tool to give you a lift whenever you need one.

“When you exercise, the feel-good hormones that are released, including endorphins and dopamine, help to pick you up,” says Sarah Lindsay, a former professional speed skater, celebrity personal trainer and co-founder of Roar Fitness. “Even if you’re feeling a little out of sorts or sluggish before you start, by the time you’ve finished, you’re left feeling energised, brighter and happier.

“There’s also the psychological benefit of knowing you’ve achieved something that’s good for you,” she says. “That feeling of positivity after exercise is huge as it has a knock-on effect to go on and do something else healthy, such as eating well.”

Lindsay adds that making getting active a regular habit is key. “It’s far more important to start by doing little and often with exercise for mental health because routine is huge for us.”

Close-up of a person's running shoes while exercising for mental healthCredit: Shutterstock/Fabio Principe
Enjoy exercising for mental health

Exercise and mental health – what to bear in mind

Start from where you are right now

Adding more movement to your current routine means starting small and not placing too many expectations on yourself, explains Joshi.

“Setting yourself regular, but small, achievable goals can be helpful as a starting point to making exercise more of a habit,” she says. “It’s important to start from where you are, though. For example, if you’ve never run more than 100 metres, signing up for a marathon in three months could well feel overwhelming and actually be demotivating. Having a list so you can check off every small achievement can be helpful to keep you on track. But don’t forget to give yourself a reward each time you tick off a mini exercise goal.”

Be kind and compassionate (to yourself)

“Even the most successful athletes have good and bad days, where they may find themselves unable to follow through with their exercise routine some days,” Joshi says. “When someone has ill mental health or a recognised condition such as depression, this can happen more frequently.

“On days where you don’t feel yourself, be kind and compassionate,” she advises. “Don’t beat yourself up; simply try and pick up where you left off the next day or the following week.”

Do you pass the friend test?

It’s all too easy to put down your exercise efforts and talk negatively to yourself. A good way out of this, which will help you to better appreciate your progress, is to apply the friend test.

“Think about how you talk to yourself and the words you use,” Lindsay says. “It’s so important to pat yourself on the back. You had a plan to be active and you followed that through and that’s a brilliant step in the right direction.

“A lot of the time, people manage to turn their exercise positives into negatives by using phrases like ‘I only did this,’ as though what they’ve achieved isn’t good enough. Listen to what you tell yourself: is it how you would speak to a friend if they told you they had been active? Next time, try saying well done to yourself instead.”

To encourage more of us to exercise for our mental health, Sarah Lindsay has a special summer offer for Saga Exceptional readers. You can subscribe to her Roar Classes On Demand platform for £4 per month (usual fee £25) until August 31 2023. Enter the code ‘ROARFOR4’ to access this summer fitness deal.

Julie Penfold

Written by Julie Penfold she/her

Updated:

Julie Penfold has been a specialist health and wellbeing journalist for more than 15 years and has been a finalist in three prestigious health and medical journalism awards during that time. She has written for a wide variety of health, medical, wellbeing and fitness magazines and websites. These have included Running, TechRadar, Outdoor Fitness, Be Healthy, Top Sante, Doctors.net.uk and The Guardian’s Social Care network.

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