The Impact of Exercise on Mental Health
Arguably there’s never been a more important time to talk about mental health than right now. The events of 2020 have thrown a total spanner in the works, making us all subject to a great deal of uncertainty, social isolation and loneliness, economic hardship, the loss of loved ones — these are just a few of the many devastating effects the virus has had on us. All this on top of our already challenging modern lifestyles, that can make the maintenance of our mental wellbeing a sliding scale at the best of times, and quite often a pendulum. According to mind — a leading mental health charity — one in four people in England suffer a mental health problem of some kind each year, whilst one in six experience a common mental health problem in any given week, with anxiety and depression the most commonly reported.
Maintaining sound mental health, alongside good physical health, makes a tremendous difference to how we show up in the world; it impacts just about everything from our mood and energy levels to our relationships and performance at work. To be clear, mental health isn’t about every day being rainbows and unicorns, but rather about us having capacity to cope with the day-to-day, fulfil our responsibilities and engage in activities that bring joy to our lives. On a good day it means getting out of bed with a sense of inner calm — the sort of quietly energetic feeling that carries you, almost effortlessly, through the day. It means we show up in the world with confidence and enthusiasm. On a bad day it means we’re able to hold ourselves together through supportive dialogue (even if sometimes it feels like the faintest of whispers), maintain a sense of balance and perspective, and find it within ourselves to persevere with the day ahead.
Much like physical health, maintaining our mental wellbeing is a constant balancing act, with a whole range of factors influencing the overall energy balance. From what we eat and how well we sleep, the pace of our lives and the environments we work in, to our relationships and career — quite literally everything plays a part. Naturally, each one of us faces a unique set of circumstances and pressures we must manage, much like individually we’re also all unique in the exact way we approach managing those pressures. Regardless of these individualities however, holding ourselves in awareness and having the right toolkit at the ready is key to leading a healthy and balanced life.
Exercise, I will argue, deserves a top spot in everybody’s arsenal of tools.
MOVEMENT AS MEDICINE
Like many people, when I first started my love affair with fitness, I did it because of the way it made me look, or least on the promise of how it could make me look. Many years later, a couple of university degrees, an investment banking career and a quarter life crisis behind me, fitness is so much more than that – it’s one of the most important tools in my mental health wellbeing toolkit.
Whilst exercise may be the last thing on your mind when your mental A-game feels like it’s running on steam, arguably it is one of the best medicines to help us improve our mood, and make us feel better. Research increasingly shows that, as well as being a key foundational pillar of sound physical health, exercise also plays a crucial role in the management and maintenance of our mental health. Some studies have gone as far to claim that regular exercise is at least as powerful as antidepressants and pharmaceutical interventions in fighting mild to moderate depression and other mental health conditions such as anxiety.
How does it all work then, you may ask?
IT’S CHEMISTRY, BABY
From a chemical perspective, higher intensity cardiovascular exercise stimulates our bodies to produce endorphins — our natural feel-good chemicals, known to be responsible for the "runner’s high", which I’m sure you’re well familiar with. By binding with neurotransmitters in our brains, endorphins work to reduce our pain symptoms and overall experience of stress, whilst at the same time boosting our mood.
Exercise also stimulates the production of dopamine and serotonin — the “happy hormones” — both of which are critical to regulating a whole spectrum of wellbeing-critical factors. Serotonin is responsible for regulating our mood, emotions, and the sleep cycle, meanwhile dopamine — the “pleasure chemical” — increases feelings of pleasure and happiness. There are indirect effects at play here as well, for example — studies show that individuals with dopamine deficiency are more prone to weight gain, because food provides us with a dopamine boost (hence the phrase “comfort food”), which is one reason why we’re more likely to use it as a soothing mechanism when we’re feeling low.
Another mechanism through which physical activity supports our overall mental health is through stimulating brain cell growth in the hippocampus; this is an area of the brain that helps regulate our mood and has been found to be smaller in individuals experiencing depression. By releasing proteins called neurotrophic or growth factors, exercise stimulates nerve cell growth, facilitating new connections to be made and helping alleviate symptoms of depression and low mood.
On a more general level, exercise stimulates circulation, aids the body’s natural detoxification process and helps lower blood sugar levels, all of which play a part in reducing overall levels of inflammation in the body as well as keeping energy levels stable. Our bodies are complex machines consisting of many interconnected processes; factors like stable blood sugar levels and consistent energy production can go a long way in alleviating some of our mental health struggles and support our overall wellbeing.
LOOKING BEYOND SCIENCE
For starters exercise can help to take our mind off of things, even if only temporarily. When our minds are anxiously racing it can be difficult to break the negative feedback loop, where worry about worry leads to more worry… Dedicating a bit of time in the day to movement is one way of taking a break and giving the mind some much needed headspace.
From personal experience I know that when my mental health suffers my overall confidence levels quickly fade alongside it too. One of the magical things about exercise is it can help you re-establish, and maintain, that inner confidence; when approached with kindness and the right level of expectation, completing a workout — no matter how long or intense — can go a long way in giving you a sense of achievement and, with it, a little confidence boost.
Prioritising exercise in your day is also a wonderful way of nurturing the most important relationship in your life — the one you have with yourself. Showing up on the difficult days is tough, but it’s exactly on those days that showing up is critical; by looking after and nourishing your body and mind, you’re sending an important unspoken message to yourself that you’ve got your own back no matter what… And that means everything.
Lastly, an important added bonus is turning at least part of your exercise routine into a social occasion. It’s totally optional, but it’s worth highlighting that it comes with a magnifying effect to all the benefits already mentioned. Human beings are fundamentally wired for social connection, meaning our overall sense of wellbeing really depends on it; unfortunately we tend to withdraw from social activity when we’re not feeling ‘up to scratch’, depriving ourselves of this important element. With this in mind then, it’s worth thinking about amplifying your next workout by joining a local group activity, or arranging an active catch up with a friend.
EVERY LITTLE COUNTS
Finding the motivation to exercise can be a bit of a minefield at the best of times, let alone when we’re feeling the blues. Key here is to be kind to yourself and set small realistic targets that you can build on over time as your energy picks up momentum.
Starting small can mean whatever you need it to mean. It can be a five minute jog or a fifteen minute walk. It can also be some evening mobility work, or a gentle yoga flow that allows you to reconnect with your breath and create space in your body; in fact you may find that lower intensity movement resonates more with you in this time instead of your usual HIIT routine. There’s no right or wrong answer here — just listen out for the signals your body is sending you and remember – little is better than none, and the most important thing right now is you start moving and generating that momentum.
Lastly, don’t be hard on yourself and try not to compare yourself to others, or to where you were a few days ago, a week ago, or a year ago. Instead, take the pressure off and focus on where you’re at right now and trust that nothing lasts forever.
This article is not intended to serve as medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you or someone you know is currently struggling with mental health, seek advice from your medical practitioner or a qualified mental health professional.