We usually find ourselves hitting the gym to shed off a few kilos or get ourselves healthier. But did you know that regular exercise is one of the most effective ways to improve your mental health? Regular exercise directly affects the brain by increasing brain volumes in certain regions and fostering neural growth and connections. The best part is, you don’t have to be a fitness junkie to reap these benefits; even just moderate amounts of activity have shown to be beneficial.

The Link between Exercise and Mental Health

Studies show that moderate levels of exercise are the most beneficial. This has a range of effects on your mental health:

  • It can help with the treatment of mild to moderate depression and anxiety (as effectively as medication without the side effects) and even prevent relapse.
  • The symptoms of stress that might accompany anxiety, such as muscle tension that can cause aches and pains, chest tightness or a racing heart, insomnia, heartburn or frequent urination. Moreover, the added discomfort of all these can result in even more stress, creating a vicious cycle between your mind and body.
  • It’s one of the most effective methods to alleviate symptoms experienced in ADHD.
  • It provides relief from immobilisation associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or trauma by facilitating the release of pressure from your nervous system.

Exercise is a potent remedy for mental health difficulties for numerous reasons, the most significant of which is that it stimulates neurobiological changes in the brain that promote relaxation and wellbeing. Further, it discharges brain chemicals called endorphins that energise your spirits and increases feelings of “euphoria” post-workout. It also enhances your brain’s level of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels—all of which affect memory, concentration, mood and motivation. Finally, exercise is one of the best ways to break the vicious cycle between mind and body as it diverts your attention, provided you really engage in it instead of spacing out. This means that you should be mindful of your movements by trying to observe the way your feet hit the ground, your breathing or the sights around you if you’re outdoors.

Other benefits of regular activity on your mental and emotional health include:

1. Better Cognitive Function

An added bonus thanks to those endorphins released during exercise is better concentration, memory and mental alertness. Regular exercise also encourages the development of new brain cells, which fosters learning, and helps inhibit age-related decline. Additionally, if you find yourself grappling with a creative task, go for a workout and sit yourself down after. A study in The British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that exercise can boost creativity for up to two hours after a workout.

2. Improved Self-Confidence and Higher Self-Esteem

An exercise routine has a number of benefits on your confidence and self-esteem. If you go to the gym, you might benefit from exercising your social skills as well, and obtain a sense of support and encouragement from other members. You might even find a gym buddy to workout with and keep each other motivated. As you become more confident in the gym, it may spill over to different aspects of your life. You’ll feel better about your appearance, boosting your self-image and enhancing your sense of self-worth.

3. More Energy and Productivity

Blood flow increases when we exercise as it increases your heart rate, transporting more nutrients and oxygen to our muscles that leave us feeling more energetic. Some findings have indicated that people who are regularly active are more productive in their work and personal lives. You can reap these benefits just by beginning your day with just a few minutes of exercise, and gradually increase your workout intensity as you feel more invigorated.


4. Improved sleep

When you exercise, your body needs to recover. This usually occurs at night when you sleep. Your brain will, therefore, cause you to become tired earlier to enable you to sleep soundly and recuperate for the next day. Bear in mind, do more intense workouts earlier in the day. The rush of energising endorphins might keep you alert if you work out too late and conversely make it harder for you to sleep.

5. Healthier Means of Coping

Instead of using negative behaviours such as drugs, alcohol or smoking, exercise gives you an alternate, more adaptive means of coping when facing emotional or mental difficulties. It builds resilience by diminishing the effects of stress, and can even prevent relapses and boosts your immune system.

Mental Health as a Barrier to Exercise

While the decrease in stress, fatigue and improvement in mood are key motivators to engage in exercise, new research has found that some people with mental health issues have cited these very factors as obstacles to exercising in the first place. This makes even putting on track shoes seem like a monumental task. Some of these barriers include:

1. Feeling Hopeless and Overwhelmed

When you’re depressed or encumbered with stress and anxiety, undertaking another responsibility can seem overwhelming. You might not have any experience exercising, which adds another excuse to put it off. Remember that exercise can make you feel better, and even a simple routine that you can incorporate into your schedule might be a good way to start before gradually increasing intensity.

2. Fatigue

Sometimes symptoms of difficulties such as depression or anxiety can make you feel too exhausted to even contemplate working out. However, research has shown that physical activity can decrease fatigue and boost energy levels. If exhaustion is getting the better of you, try to walk around your neighbour for at least five to ten minutes first. Perhaps the next day you can increase that to another five minutes, and another five after.

3. Feeling lousy about yourself

You might feel bad about the way you look but the truth, regardless of your weight, age or fitness level, there are others like you with similar aims of getting fit and healthy. A great way to start is to try surrounding yourself with people in your shoes, for example, by taking a fitness class catering to varying fitness levels. Start with small objectives in pursuit of a bigger aim. Achieving even the slightest fitness goals will enable you to attain body confidence.

4. Pain

Feeling pain of any kind is a huge deterrent to getting active. Such pain could arise from a disability, arthritis, severe weight problems, or injuries or illnesses that limit movement. Don’t ignore the pain and attempt to workout; find out from your General Practitioner or healthcare provider what activities you can engage in. If possible, try exercising for shorter periods more frequently. Exercising in water (e.g. swimming) is also a good way to reduce joint or muscle discomfort.

5. Perfectionist Traits

Being a perfectionist can be quite positive when embarking on a fitness plan. Studies have shown that those with perfectionistic traits set high personal standards, striving to achieve grand yet realistic goals which often result in success. They also tend to be meticulous and confident in pursuit of these. On the flip side however, individuals who pursue their goals relentlessly may be susceptible to setting excessively high standards, may be preoccupied with making mistakes which increases anxiety and may overemphasise accuracy and organisation over efficiency. Such perfectionism, known as neurotic perfectionism, tend to lead an individual to engage in self-destructive behaviours, disproportionate self-deprecation and feel like they are never “good enough”. They may even engage in overtraining or become addicted to exercise in order to achieve their unrealistic goals, straining themselves beyond their body’s ability to cope.

Tips to Exercising if you’re Facing Emotional or Mental Health Difficulties

1. Start small

If you’re struggling with emotional or mental health difficulties and haven’t worked out for a while, setting lofty goals like waking up to join an advance body combat session before work or completing a marathon will cause you more unhappiness should you fail to accomplish them. Be realistic. Set small, attainable goals and take your time to achieve them.

2. Exercise when you’re most energetic

When in the day is your energy level the highest? First thing in the morning or early afternoon? The weekend? Feelings of depression or anxiety might leave you unmotivated and exhausted the entire day, and your energy levels are constantly low. However, if you manage to get out of bed, try putting on some music to shaking a little or just go for a short walk around the block. Even a small amount of activity could serve to clear your mind, elevate your mood and increase energy levels. Moreover, this could result in feelings of vigour that lead to motivation for further exercise. You might even find yourself running instead of walking soon enough.

3. Find activities you like

Do something you enjoy, even if it’s walking your dog or taekwondo.  Any activity that gets you going, counts. Attempt different activities if you’re a newbie in the exercise game to find something that suits you. The idea is to get moving and become more active through activities that you enjoy. Aside from becoming more active, they can also leave you with a sense of mastery and accomplishment.

4. Exercise with a Friend or a community

Finding a workout buddy is a good way of motivating yourself to adhere to an exercise routine. Not only will the two of you have fun getting in shape, but the social component can also be just as vital as the exercise if you’re trying to manage depression. It definitely beats exercising alone. If you’re unable to find a particular workout buddy, why not join a community such as our 60-day Metabolic Health Programme where you can find companionship and motivation from a community?

Keep at It!

As with weight loss, improvements in your mental health will only come about if you stick to a regular workout routine. A recent study has recommended having at least three to five exercise sessions every week, with each session lasting between 45 and 60 minutes. The first few steps will be the hardest, and you’re likely to encounter a lot of resistance. Eventually though, when you notice the small changes in your mood or energy level, exercise will become intrinsically rewarding and motivating.

Photo Credits: Pexels and Pixabay


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