Healthy body, healthy mind: How exercise builds up our mental health
When we think about exercise, we relate it to getting leaner, fitter and building up our muscles. But what about the effect is has on our most important organ – our brain?
We often neglect the tremendous mental health benefits of exercise and it’s becoming more apparent that regular exercise and good mental health go hand in hand. Exercise can help treat a wide range of issues from stress and anxiety to moderate cases of depression.
You may already be aware that there’s a good relationship between exercise and mental health, but do you know why?
Well, that’s what this article is all about – we explain how exercise makes a definitive impact on our mental and physical health, how much you should be doing to feel the positive effects in your mind and body, and some examples of effective exercises for you to try.
Exercise and Mental Health – The Facts
First, let’s outline some of the key statistics between exercise and mental health:
- There is a 20%-30% lower risk of depression and general feelings of distress for adults participating in daily physical activity (Start Active, Stay Active)
- People who exercise regularly have 1.5 fewer “bad days” a month on average than those who don’t exercise (The Lancet Psychiatry Journal)
- The odds of getting depression for people managing 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a week is 22% lower than those who don’t (NHS)
Why is exercise good for mental health?
The most prominent benefit that physical exercise offers for our mental health is the release of feel-good brain chemicals like endorphins. Endorphins relieve pain and stress in the mind and give us an overarching feeling of enjoyment during physical activity and other pastimes. You might have heard about “the runner’s high” – this essentially describes when exercise releases endorphins into your body.
Endorphins are one of the many neurotransmitters in our brain that determine how we think and feel about certain situations. When these are activated during exercise, they trigger the release of helpful chemicals throughout the body which not only help us get through the activity at hand, but improve our general mood. These chemicals include:
This release of chemicals along with several other benefits exercise offers is why it is such a useful course of treatment for a variety of mental health issues.
Exercise and serotonin
Of the chemicals listed above, serotonin is one to expand on more deeply. Serotonin is the chemical most antidepressants target in an effort to improve people’s mood. While around 75% of our body’s serotonin is stored in our gut to regulate intestinal movements, it’s the 25% in our brains that we’re interested in for mental health exercises.
According to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), exercise increases the function of serotonin in humans. The reason is two-fold – first, motor activity improves the rate at which serotonin is fired around the brain. Secondly, it also enhances the amount of tryptophan in the brain, which is an amino acid used to create serotonin.
Although it’s still a little unclear as to how this process joins together, numerous studies have noted this correlation between exercise and serotonin levels rising, subsequently having a positive effect on mental health.
The mental health benefits of exercise
This release of serotonin is one of the many ways exercise and mental health come together to provide effective, lasting benefits:
- Training the brain
Exercise not only encourages the brain to release helpful, positive chemicals, but it can increase the size of our hippocampus, the part responsible for our memory. Furthermore, more connections between our nerve cells develop, helping to protect our minds from injury and mental illness.
- Natural energy source
While starting an exercise routine can feel energy-sapping, over time exercise becomes a natural way to improve energy levels. This fights against the draining effects that mental health problems can cause and motivates us to get out of bed and embrace the day.
- Release tension
Sometimes feelings of low mood can be caused by persistent aches and pains in our muscles, bones and other areas of the body. Aerobic like yoga or Pilates in particular can ease the tension in these areas and decrease any discomfort, making it a great type of exercise for mental health.
- Exercise and achievement
Exercise is great for giving us goals to aim for, to one day turn that kilometre-long jog into a mile-long one. Pushing for an achieving those goals gives us feelings of accomplishment and self-worth, which in turn makes us feel happier about our lives in general.
- Lose weight, gain self-esteem
Typical by-products of regular exercise are weight loss and muscle development. If you struggle with self-esteem issues, this can help you feel more comfortable with the way you look and how you’re getting there, as well as establish a more healthy, balanced appetite.
- A good night’s sleep
If getting your eight hours of shut-eye is a constant battle, regular exercise as part of your evening routine can help relax your muscles and tire you out. The ability to rest helps you find the sleep you’ve been missing, and provides a boost to your mind's health.
- Avoid isolation
There are many types of exercise, most of which encourage you to interact with those around you. Getting involved in a team sport or gym class can be a great way to overcome the isolation that can come with depression, anxiety and other mental health difficulties, and connect with people with shared interests.
- A welcome distraction
Sitting too long with our thoughts can hurt our mental wellbeing. Exercise allows you to break any negative thought patterns that feed your low mood, giving you something else to focus on as an effective, beneficial coping mechanism.
- Outlet for frustrations
We all get angry and frustrated on occasion, and finding a healthy outlet for those feelings is important to ensure they don’t affect your health or personal relationships. By releasing serotonin, endorphins and other feel-good chemicals, exercise helps the frustration to subside.
How much exercise is required to improve mental health?
The NHS recommends that adults aged between 19 and 64 should aim for around 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week, including two or more days of muscle strength exercises. Why not try brisk walking, hiking, cycling or water aerobics?
Alternatively, the 150 minutes can be reduced to 75 minutes of vigorous activity, which covers jogging/running, football, fast swimming and gymnastics, to name a few. The NHS also provide unique guidelines for early childhood, young people and older adults aged 65 and over.
If this all sounds daunting, the important thing to keep in mind is that any exercise is a positive step forward for your mind and body. Even if at first this is as straightforward as a 15-minute walk around your area, these small steps can make a substantial difference to your overall mood.
Start small and build up your relationship with exercise and mental health over time. Choose an activity that you are a fan of or enjoyed in the past to get you started, and create a simple, easy-to-follow exercise plan that gets you more active every day without draining your motivation straight away.
What are some of the best exercises for mental health?
Frankly, any physical activity is helpful for releasing the feel-good hormones that make it such a positive help for our wellbeing. But, aerobic and strength exercises are often considered effective due to the focus on deep breathing, concentration and conditioning that benefit both our physical and mental health.
Here are some jump-off ideas of effective exercises and activities that can help improve your body and your mind:
- Resistance training
- Spin classes
- Martial arts
Exercising Your Mental Health
Forming a positive relationship between exercise and mental health is one of many helpful techniques to improve your overall mood and outlook on life. Exercise is often seriously underappreciated in its ability to make us feel better not just physically but mentally as well, and hopefully this insight into why it makes such a sizeable difference to our wellbeing will encourage you to introduce more activities into your day-to-day life.
As mentioned, exercise is just one of the ways you can take control of your mood and get on the path to feeling better. At Therapy for You, we are committed to supporting people with mental health concerns through our proven range of psychoeducational courses and talking therapies. Through these, we explore your feelings and present coping mechanisms to manage your mood on the way to overcoming them.