How can exercise improve my mental health?

By Stephanie Lee

How many times have you wanted to snooze the alarm clock, crawl under the covers and not get out of bed for a morning gym class? Or feeling like you’re too exhausted at the end of the day to talk to anyone, let alone, go for a cycle. Yet, we do it. We push ourselves and low and behold we feel more energised mentally than we did before we started. So how does exercise give us clarity and perspective and why is it so good for our mental health?

Our brains and exercise

Exercise is strongly linked to many processes that happen in our brains. Our brains are made up of about 100 billion neurons which transmit chemical signals between each other. These chemical signals are known as neurotransmitters, and are responsible for how you feel, think and behave. The two types of neurotransmitters that are responsible for why you feel so good when you exercise are known as endorphins and serotonin.

Serotonin is a mood-boosting neurotransmitter and is known as the “happy chemical” because it also makes us feel good. Unlike endorphins, which initially block pain to produce pleasure, serotonin just focuses on the pleasure side. There has been some recent research to show that people with no or little serotonin can increase their chance of having depression. This is why most anti-depression medicine works by pumping more serotonin into the brain. We also know that there is another more natural way of increasing our serotonin level without medication. And this is by exercise. In the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, there is an article that says that we can relieve symptoms of depression by doing regular aerobic exercise, strength training and resistance-machines. They found that exercise is one of the best ways to improve our mental health and therefore reduce depressive types of illnesses.

The mental health benefits of exercise

More and more research is being conducted on the link between how exercise can make us feel better mentally. Scientists, psychologists and medical professionals have shown how exercise can help, for example:

  • Patients with Alzheimer disease have shown significant improvement in their memory and mood with exercise
  • Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have improved their ability to stay more focused after exercise
  • Just 30 minutes of regular activity helped people with major depressive disorders lift their mood “scores” significantly
  • Patients with anxiety reported fewer symptoms that were causing them the anxiety and had less panic attacks after an acute cardiovascular exercise routine

What’s the best exercise for me?  

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. It will depend on how much time you have, when to exercise, where to exercise, your current state of fitness and any other medical or mitigating circumstances. The good news is that a lot of exercise is free – going to a run, taking the dog for a walk, skipping, dancing and even doing housework can get your heart rate up. People tend to stick to exercise more if they enjoy what they’re doing and mix it up, for example cardio one day, then weights or low impact exercise. Find what works for you. Commit to it. Buddy up with someone to support you. Do it regularly. Notice how you feel before and after your workout.

How can I fit more exercise into my day – I’m too busy!  

Our lives do seem to be getting busier. However, here are some ways to slip in some incidental exercise into your day:

  • Take the stairs, not the elevators
  • Walk wherever you can
  • Play outside with the kids or pets
  • Park an extra block away from your destination
  • Do squats or lunges whilst brushing your teeth
  • “Lose” the remote so you have to get up and walk to the TV when you want to change channels
  • Move, stretch or foam roll while watching TV. Stand up when the adverts come on
  • Stand on the bus or train rather than sit
  • Go outside for a walk during your lunch break
  • Walk to your work colleagues’ desks rather than send them an email in the same office
  • Get an app on your phone or an activity tracker to keep you motivated

Experts suggest at least 150 minutes a week to get your heart rate up. Consult your health care professional if you have special circumstances. Whatever you choose, enjoy it!

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