6 ways that exercise is good for mental health

I’d like to start by pointing out that our entire physiology and genetic makeup is not designed for a sedentary lifestyle, we simply haven’t evolved past the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Over 99.5% of our 2.6m year existence has been spent as hunter-gatherers so we simply haven’t had the time to genetically evolve and adapt to our recent lack of movement.

Modern food is high in calories but low in satiety (feeling full/satisfied). It is generally higher in sugar and fat than food we would have found in nature. The brain doesn’t know how to deal with the humongous dopamine high we feel when consuming these foods, which of course encourages us to eat more and more. So the body stores the excess fat, especially since a huge percentage of us sit down to work for the majority of the week.

This has huge ramifications for our physical health. The physical effects are often so much more visible than the mental.  But what impact does a lack of exercise and movement have on our mental health? Read on for more detail on how exercise really benefits your mental health.

1. Ride that natural high (consistently)

The main reason that exercise is good for mental health is that it triggers your brain to release hormones that make us feel good. There’s a few key hormones that deserve a mention for their role in the delicious exercise high: Endorphins, Serotonin and Dopamine.

First up, Endorphins

You might have heard of the ‘runners high’ or people mentioning a gorgeous endorphin rush after exercise. This is accurate for any form of exercise, not just running, and the effects can last a few hours.

Endorphins are great because they help to reduce stress and improve your mood. No complaints here.

Next up, Serotonin

Arguably the crown jewel of the three, this beauty regulates your mood (so less extreme highs/lows) as well as helping to improve sleep quality (which in turn can help to improve your mental health in itself), appetite, digestion and memory (which again can all affect how you feel day to day).

The effects of Serotonin can last up to a few days so regular training can really help to keep these levels up continuously.

And by no means least, Dopamine

This one is our reward hormone, it gives us a juicy feel-good pleasure-rush when it’s released and so we get an instant high. It rises and falls quicker than the other two, but it helps to increase the satisfaction we get from exercising and so improves our relationship with, and our drive, to keep exercising – which of course in turn increases the release of Endorphins and Serotonin – hell yes.

The reason regular exercise is so important as opposed to sporadic bouts of training here and there is that with regular exercise, the concentrations of these chemicals are elevated over time compared to if you don’t exercise regularly. So consistent training can often mean a more consistent mood and positive mindset.

2. Sleep better

You’ve heard of people sleeping better when they’ve ‘tired themself out’ and it really can make a huge difference. Being more active during the day can mean that you get a better night’s sleep as you’re simply more tired at the end of the day.

By sleeping better you’re less likely to feel anxious and depressed or at least help to reduce your symptoms. You’re less likely to be irritable and low on energy and concentration and more likely to have the energy to go out and socialise, or put yourself in situations where you can meet new people.

A big factor in declining mental health nowadays is isolation and feeling lonely so getting a good night’s sleep can give you the mental energy to go and try new things and mix with different groups of people.

3. Manage your stress

Cortisol is a hormone that’s released when we are stressed to help keep the body in ‘fight or flight’ – basically revved up and on high alert. This can be damaging long-term, but even in the short term, it doesn’t feel great.

With regular exercise though, the body can get better at controlling your cortisol levels and they can gradually lower over time, reducing the feeling of stress. Exercise can also be great for immediate relief by creating something to focus on, to take your mind off of racing thoughts.

Different forms of exercise will be better for some people and not for others – it might be that running works for one person, but actually bores someone else so their thoughts race even more. Weight training might be really great for some as they have to focus on their form, breathing and technique so much that they can’t focus on anything else, but for other people that might just not cut it.

It’s important to find the right form of exercise for you, everyone will be different. So a bit of trial and error may be needed to find the best way to distract and quieten your mind.

4. Give your self-esteem a boost

Improving your mental and physical health is a great start to feeling better in yourself but progressing towards your goals can make a huge difference in itself. Success and confidence in the gym can absolutely transfer into your day-to-day life. If you feel like you’re smashing your goals in the gym, you’ll likely feel that boost lasting well after your session. Feeling like you’re achieving is a basic need that we all want to fulfil – and it feels really great when we do 🙂

5. Make more connections

Whether you join a group activity, class or hire a PT, you’re increasing your social interactions, which can be a game changer for your mental health. Isolating yourself rarely helps if you’re struggling, and so meeting new people through exercise can be a great way of breaking out of this habit and being more sociable.

That’s not to say you should try and be the biggest social butterfly you can be, we all need some me-time. But putting yourself in social situations if you feel like this might be something you are lacking, can be really beneficial.

6. Value yourself

Do you follow the same advice that you give other people? The answer to this is often a big fat no. We often take care of others a lot better than we take care of ourselves, and this can be down to how much we value ourselves. If you’re struggling with your mental health, it might be that this is something that you’re guilty of.

By improving your health through regular exercise, good nutrition and a regular sleeping pattern, you reinforce habits of taking care of yourself, which in turn can reinforce that you yourself have value. You are worth putting the effort in – you really are ❤️

Exercise IS good for mental health BUT it might not be right for you just yet!

Although you’ll hear many people rave about exercise and how much it’s benefited their mental health (myself included!). It’s not a sure-fire solution. For some people, it may actually cause more harm than good, particularly when paired with an eating disorder, or if you tend to overtrain.

Furthermore, if you’re in a bad place and find it really hard to motivate yourself to get moving, desperately trying to keep up with an exercise routine and then being hard on yourself when you don’t manage to, isn’t going to help either. It might be that you can start focusing on other things for a while in terms of improving your health such as making small changes to your diet or socialising slightly more often. Setting achievable goals is key here, firstly, so you can celebrate these small wins and notice that you’re actually progressing, and secondly so that you can keep your motivation up as well.

Build it up slowly

Improving your mental health isn’t something that happens over night, and so it’s important to take baby steps that you can manage. And when you’re in a position to start adding some exercise into your routine, gradually build it up – even people feeling 100% would struggle to go from no exercise to 5 sessions per week, it’s such a big lifestyle change. Build it up slowly – so anything from 1-3 times per week, try a few things to find what you enjoy and go from there. I hate to be that person and say it, but it’s a marathon not a sprint; however when you get there with an exercise routine that works for you, it’s SO worth it. 

I just want to finish by saying that exercise literally saved my life, and if you’re struggling and feel like you might be ready to give it a go, my door is always open. No strings or sales pitch attached, just some zero BS advice to get you started. You can drop me a DM on instagram or pop me an email at hello@liftyourselfconfident.co.uk.

Here’s to a happy, healthy, active you 🙂

In case you missed it, here is my latest blog post: Why NOT to do a 6 week body transformation

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Picture of Ray Hickford

Ray Hickford

Hi, I’m Ray, a health and wellbeing professional in Manchester working with clients through training and nutrition programmes to help them feel more confident, strong and happy both in and outside of the gym.
As a Qualified Personal Trainer and Level 4 RSPH Nutrition Advisor, I am constantly learning myself - from my clients, from other industry experts and sometimes myself! And sometimes I write some of this down for ya.

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