How exercise can improve your mental health

You feel pretty good after a workout, right? Sure, you’re red in the face and perhaps need to lie down, but do you feel good within yourself? After you catch your breath, you might feel like you have more energy, feel more positive, and tend not to feel as stressed, anxious or worried. This is a huge positive benefit of exercise – not just shedding excess weight but improving your mental health and well-being.

Many doctors advocate the importance of regular exercise, for the mind as well as the body:

“A prescription of exercise can help you have a healthy mind. Exercise stimulates positive endorphins, clears your head and lifts your mood. I think we’ll see more and more people prescribed exercise as a mood-booster.”

– GP Dr Paul Stillman, Media Medics

Healthy mind, healthy body

It’s becoming more apparent how essential exercise is for our mental and physical health. In fact, the Department of Health recently released research which indicated that 12% of cases of depression could be alleviated with just an hour’s worth of weekly exercise. Work out three times a week and slash your risk of depression by 30% – that’s definitely worth it!

Don’t stress out – work out

Stress is another biggie in the world of mental health – almost 50% of people in the UK report stress affecting their mental health regularly. Stress is a natural response to pressure and its natural to feel stressed sometimes, but chronic stress can lead to significant mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. A study of brain scans by neurologists at Stanford Medical School revealed that people who exercise regularly have more grey matter in the prefrontal cortex – this is the part of the brain that controls stress management.

Of course, when you aren’t feeling great mentally, doing most physical tasks seems like an overwhelming struggle and can make you want to curl up into a ball and hide forever. But it’s important to break out of this cycle and take some time to look after yourself. Taking exercise has been shown to stimulate serotonin production in the brain – the neurotransmitter that provokes feelings of happiness and positivity.

Does exercise help with anxiety?

Many people find that exercise helps them to manage their anxiety and can help distract them from spiralling into negative thought patterns, as well as giving them that rush of feel-good endorphins that can help to counter feelings of anxiety.

“Running gives me the headspace to focus on what I’m feeling when my anxiety gets really bad,” says Cardiff student Seren Pritchard-Bland, 21, who ran the London Marathon for the mental health charity Heads Together. “I get panic attacks when I’m stressed out, but I find simply getting out of the house with my trainers on makes me feel like I’ve achieved something positive. Running is therapeutic – it’s so much healthier than being alone at home with thoughts spinning around my head.” 

Why is exercise such a great mood-booster?

Exercise isn’t just great for a mood boost – being active is a great way of releasing tension, loosening up those tense muscles, and taking a break from your own head. It can also help you to get better sleep, which is essential for good mental and physical health.

Hayley Jarvis, programme manager for sport at the mental health charity Mind says –

“Being active is one of the best things you can do to help yourself bounce back in times of adversity. Getting out of your head and into your body can actually improve your ability to think clearly and break up your racing thoughts.”

Find your mood-boosting workout

The idea of getting out of bed to do some star jumps or whatever when you are in a slump sounds virtually impossible – but you can start slow. Running a marathon sounds (and is!) very hard, but taking a short walk around the block and getting some fresh air is a great way of getting those endorphins flowing. You can always stop if you really aren’t feeling it, but once you make a start, you’ll be surprised at how much you can do. Each step gets a little easier. 

What kind of exercise is for me?

If you want to be more social, try taking part in a team sport like football, basketball or netball. Mental health issues can be very isolating, and it is important to be around other people who can motivate and inspire you. Feeling connected to other people and having a social life is instrumental to cultivating good mental health. 

If you find that your mind is often racing and you struggle to relax and calm down, try a gentle yet engaging activity like t’ai chi, Pilates or yoga. The focus is on calm concentration and breathing techniques that will help you to feel grounded, while also stretching and flexing any tight muscles or stiff joints.

My personal prescription was a solid strength and conditioning program including 3 days of weight training (focusing on major compound movements) and 3 days of mellow cardio like rowing or walking (well playing Pokemon Go, but still walking!).

I can wholeheartedly say that the stronger and more secure in my own body I felt, the more my anxiety faded, the slow and steady yet constant progression helped me recondition my mindset and really helped me to enjoy an anxiety free lifestyle. 

The important thing is to find a kind of exercise that you enjoy, because that’s the kind you will stick with. Whether that is lifting weights, running, dancing, sports or fitness classes, take a moment after each session to notice how different your mental state is and how your mood has lifted. This is what keeps you coming back for more and you will be craving those positive feelings of wellness just as much as the physical results.

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