Exercise for Better Mental Health.

With my 5 in 5 marathon challenge, I’m encouraging all of you to get out and exercise as a way of improving your mental wellbeing.  We all know about the benefits of exercise to our physical health, but less is known, or understood about how exercise helps our mood, and how it can aid with managing anxiety and depression.

It’s not as straight forward as saying ‘exercise and you’ll feel better’, because sometimes it feels just the opposite.  Exercise takes effort, motivation and dedication; you can be easily motivated at the start, but as it gets harder, or winter arrives, the gloss can soon loose it’s shine.

You don’t have to struggle with a mental health disability to understand that it can be hard to motivate yourself to exercise.  Most people lead such busy lives that they don’t feel they have time to exercise, and often feel too tired when they do have time. 

It can also contribute more stress, especially if you are not confident about your ability and how you look physically.  Just one glimpse inside a gym or a quick search of social media can make you feel inferior and self-conscious.

One of my frustrations with some exercise/sports brands is that they generally associate themselves with fit, toned, good looking people who are doing cool extreme sports.  Yes, it can give us something to aspire to, but it can also be very off-putting especially when you’re starting out and not feeling very confident.

For me, exercise is for everyone, irrespective of age or ability.  Yes, I run long distances, but that’s me, that’s what I need, and it works with my anxieties.  On a bad day it can take me 6km just to reduce my anxiety; I struggle with social anxiety, which means I find it hard being around other people, and I’m self-conscious that I’m too skinny.  I can go running by myself, and my body type is more suited to long distance running which makes me feel more confident about the way I look. 

The key is to find an exercise form that you feel comfortable with and that you find FUN!

Once it becomes fun, you do it more often, it then turns into a good habit, motivation is easier, you feel excited about the idea of doing it, and you can’t wait to get out there, even when it’s raining! 

But how does exercise actually help our mental wellbeing?

There are two areas to look at, chemical factors and behavioural factors.

Chemically, exercise can help to reduce stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol which are linked to the ‘fight or flight’ anxiety response that we often try to suppress.  The more stress we encounter the more adrenaline and cortisol are produced, which if not managed properly, can cause long-term mental health problems. 

When our brain releases adrenaline, it increases the heart rate and blood flow, and makes your lungs work harder to increase the amount of oxygen sent to your muscles, which leads to a physical boost and heightened awareness; just the conditions that suit exercise, hence why exercise is so good for using up excess adrenaline.

During exercise, our brain releases neurotransmitters called endorphins, which help boost our mood, and are natural pain killers.  They also account for the ‘runners high’ and can make us feel more relaxed after finishing exercise.

On the behavioural side, exercise can help build our self-esteem; after a while we start to see improvements in our health, both physically and mentally, and this makes us feel good.  If we set achievable goals and complete them, we feel pride.

Some forms of exercise are more complex and include precise skills or movements such as tennis or yoga, and this helps to focus our mind; again, as we get better and more accomplished, we feel great.

There is also a social aspect to exercise that can be beneficial to our mental health; anxiety and depression can make us feel isolated and lonely, so getting out and enjoying time with others can really help improve our mood. 

If you struggle with anxiety and depression, and want to exercise for social contact, it’s probably best to try and find organisations that can support you properly, especially when you’re starting out.  The experience needs to be fun and positive, if others don’t understand your needs then problems can arise, and the experience can have the opposite effect; some people can be overly competitive or judgemental of their performance and that of others around them, which can have a negative impact.  Competition can be positive, and it can help push you to achieve greater things, but it can also add stress to something that is meant to be enjoyable.

The more strenuous the exercise the less you need to do, and the greater the results, however that doesn’t mean that lighter forms of exercise are any less important or beneficial, it may just mean that you have to do them more regularly.  Walking is a brilliant form of exercise, that nearly everyone can enjoy, and is a great place to begin if you’re starting out on your exercise journey.

When starting any new exercise regime, make sure you take things steady to begin with; if you push too hard too soon you run the risk of causing an injury, and this can have a negative effect on your mental health.  If you have any underlying health conditions, always check with your doctor first, they may be able to refer you to someone who can help get you started safely. 

Remember, your body will not naturally love you if you’re asking it to do something it’s not used to doing, so there will be some aches and pains.

Be brave and try different options; if you don’t like something after a couple of times then stop and try something else; you may find you like the exercise but not the club or the people you are with, so try another club or group.  The thing to remember is not to give up completely.

Have a look at your diet; what we eat, and drink fuels our body, and this becomes important when we increase our exercise levels.  Depending on the level you’re at, you don’t necessarily need the fancy energy gels and protein bars; just eating a balanced diet (including nuts, seeds, oats and fruit) should give you the fuel you need, along with plenty of water (nutrition also plays a big role in managing our mental wellbeing, but I’ll explore that in a separate blog).

The most important thing is that you get out there, have a go, and have some fun.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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