It’s no secret that looking after your physical health affects your mental health too. In fact, just ten minutes of exercise can make you feel more alert, energetic and positive.
But don’t take our word for it. As part of our Push for Happiness campaign, we’ve looked at the science behind exercise and mental health, and found people from all walks of life whose experiences back this up.
With help from our own Dr Dan Robertson, let’s take a look at what they had to say!
1. Keeping a clear head
James Green, financial analyst
“I’m fortunate enough to be able to get out of the office and go for a walk on my lunch break, take my team out for a wander whilst on their one to ones or nip out on a brisk walk when I’ve got a teleconference.
I find that these little excursions help me in a number of ways. Having some time to clear my head and collect my thoughts can work wonders.
Quite often, it’ll be this time where I have an epiphany and understand how I need to tackle the problem that I’m facing.”
Dr Dan Robertson
“Exercise can certainly help you escape your thoughts for a while and return to problems later with a clear head.
Studies have shown that exercise is the most effective way to encourage your brain to produce new neurons.
These are the cells that receive, process and pass information around your brain.
In particular, exercise increases neuron production in a part of your brain called the hippocampus, which handles your memory and ability to learn new things.”
2. Exercise and sleep
At a basic level, exercise can help you sleep by using up energy and making you tired. This means you’re less likely to lie awake all night thinking about whatever is making you stressed or anxious.
Exercise can also recreate a key part of your sleep cycle. As you fall asleep, your body temperature cools down.
Your body recognises this as a signal that it’s time to nod off. Exercise causes your body temperature to rise, so when you’re relaxing afterwards, you might start to feel sleepy.
Want more ways to sleep better? Our doctors have no fewet than 43 top tips for you!
3. Reducing your risk of depression
Ryan Sheppeck, photographer
“Over the years when my mental health has suffered, I’m feeling down or particularly anxious, one of the main characteristics I’ve found is that I’m normally not getting enough exercise.
In order to maintain a healthy lifestyle, I’ve integrated an early morning exercise routine into my schedule.
This normally consists of either a run or gym session. I tend to start my days with this as I find I’m less likely to skip a workout and it really helps me to get the day started.
Following early morning exercise, I’m much more focused throughout the day. My runs are always outdoors, regardless of the weather,
I find breathing in the fresh air and being away from any kind of technology helps to clear my head.
When I’m not working, running or in the gym, many of my “rest” days also contain some form of exercise as I’m an avid walker.
Exercise really is essential for my happiness and therefore, for the happiness of those around me. Without it, I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Dr Dan Robertson
“Exercise is most effective for those with mild to moderate depression. In fact, a GP can even prescribe exercise as a form of treatment!
Getting your heart rate up prompts your brain to release endorphins, known as the ‘happy hormone’. Endorphins dull the body’s pain receptors and balance out feelings of anxiety, depression or stress. They are often credited with putting people in a great mood after a workout.
Of course, prevention is better than cure, and exercise is good for that too. Studies have shown that exercising three times a week can also cut your chances of depression by up to 20%.”
4. Dealing with stress
When you’re stressed, a part of your brain called the hypothalamus prompts your kidneys to release a hormone called cortisol.
This helps with many processes in the body, including your immune system, blood pressure and metabolism.
While some stress is good, too much of it can push your cortisol levels too high. This can contribute to problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, weight gain, skin problems and, if left untreated, anxiety and depression.
Where does exercise come into all this? Simply put, the more physically fit you are, the better your body is able to regulate your cortisol levels and the more exercise you do, the more endorphins you produce to balance out your stress.
5. Tackling anxiety
Amani Leefe, busy professional and mum of three
“I set high standards for myself that are impossible to attain. I worry about absolutely everything.
I am utterly convinced I am soon to be found out, a fraud and a fake masquerading as someone who is winning at life.
All of this contributes to crippling anxiety, impostor syndrome, endless sleepless nights.
Exercise helps me keep this under control. If I am working from home I make sure the gym is my lunch break.
I am really lucky in that the gym I go to actively promote fitness for mums, and I’m able to take the children with me in the school holidays when I have a PT session.”
Dr Dan Robertson
“Many of us will be familiar with the feelings of insecurity and anxiety that Amani describes.
Exercise can give your self esteem a boost and make you think more positively about yourself, so you’ll be more comfortable in your own skin and better able to deal with the challenges life throws at you.”
Any form of exercise can help
A lot of people are put off doing exercise because they imagine having to run marathons or lift heavy weights. That’s not their idea of a good time.
The thing is, exercise can be a lot of fun. You just have to focus on something you enjoy. This will mean you’re more likely to keep it up long-term and see a positive change in your mental health.
It could be a solo activity like running, swimming or cycling, or something that will help you meet people, such as yoga, 5-a-side football, rugby or squash.
Some people find that exercising outdoors in the fresh air is the most effective workout from a mental health perspective. Even a gentle activity like walking or gardening is helpful.