Benefits of exercise on your mental health

Ray talks about the benefits of exercise on mental health

Those who know me will know that I am VERY passionate about the benefits of exercise on mental health and it’s the primary reason I became a personal trainer. So let’s get into it…

What is mental health?

No more does ‘health’ only relate to physical wellbeing or lack thereof. Our overall health is inclusive of mental and social well-being too. An interesting definition from the World Health Organisation describes mental health as:

“A state of wellbeing in which the individual realises his or her abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

WHO (1986)

This definition expresses the positive aspects of mental health rather than focussing on the problems, conditions and disorders that can accompany mental ill-health. Just like we all have varying states of physical health or ill-health, we all have our mental health to take care of as well and we’ll all be in different levels of condition here.

It’s interesting that this definition doesn’t mention any element relating to feelings or emotions, however, I would argue that the way you are feeling will affect every area of your life mentioned above significantly, one way or another. Just like a physical illness can severely disrupt your day-to-day and affect your participation in the workplace, socially and within relationships, so can mental illness too. So it is just as important to be taking good care of your mental health.

When we talk about mental health illness or disorder, we’re talking about conditions that affect your mood, thinking and/or behaviour and include anxiety and depression disorders as well as psychotic, eating and personality disorders. There is evidence to suggest that exercise can help manage symptoms and increase wellbeing, although, for more severe cases, a medical practitioner should be consulted first, as they will likely be the ones monitoring treatment in one or more forms. 

What are the benefits of exercise to your mental health?

Exercise isn’t just about looking good. Sure, many people exercise to stay slim, get slim, build muscle, and get a six-pack but that’s not the main driver behind most people who exercise regularly. The main driver is the way exercise makes them feel. This is one of the key benefits of exercise on mental health.

You might have heard of the endorphin rush that you get after exercise, sometimes called a ‘runner’s high’? Well it’s real, and it’s AWESOME. A natural high coming from a source that gives you loaaads of other positive side effects? Yes, please!

And it’s not just endorphins either, we’ve got the delightful dopamine and serotonin joining the exercise after-party as well. Both are classed under the ‘happy hormone’ umbrella for their mood-boosting, and regulatory functions as well as helping to increase focus, concentration and regulate sleep – which is again very important for mental health. You’ll probably have already felt this more than once in your lifetime – sleep has a serious impact on how you feel and function!

People who exercise are scientifically proven to be less likely to be depressed, anxious and more likely to feel better about themselves. Other than the effect of serotonin on sleep, regular exercisers tend to sleep better simply because they have literally tired themselves out! But aside from the proven biological effects, there are a variety of other effects to consider. Things like the sense of achievement you feel from hitting a new personal best or smashing through a goal or maybe even finally beating your workout partner at something they’ve always juuuust been ahead of you at.

Another key benefit of exercise on mental health is having something to focus on. A great distraction and/or coping mechanism when you tend to have a lot on your mind, or you have constantly racing thoughts.

Personally, for stress release there’s nothing better for me than a beast of a session that would make even Thor stand back. Getting all your stresses and frustrations out in a healthy, productive way is just so satisfying, so if you haven’t given it a go on the regular, I’d highly recommend it.

Now I mention it, keeping your sessions regular is a key thing to consider as well. You might be wondering how long it takes to feel the benefits of exercises on mental health I’ve been hyping so much….

We’ve covered the immediate happy hormone rush after exercise but what about the longer-term benefits of feeling stronger, more in control, more focused, energised, higher self-esteem and more relaxed and able to organise your thoughts?

Well, the answer really is how long is a piece of string, because everyone is different and if you are struggling with your mental health it is likely going to differ from the next person. But the key is to persevere and keep up the routine because like any other treatment it can take a good few weeks to take effect.

How to get started with exercise for mental health

Each week set aside time to get moving, put it in your diary, or your phone, and write it on your notepad – however you normally organise your time.

The day before, get the clothes out that you will wear while exercising so that you can’t miss them the next day and forget to exercise. Remember to take it slow too – if you jump into a really ambitious routine of going from not exercising at all to training five times per week, you’re unlikely to keep that up. So build it up slowly. Start with one or two sessions and go from there.

You’re building a new, healthy habit here and it’ll take time for it to become a part of your normal routine. Exercising doesn’t have to be high equipment or done in a traditional gym environment, simply moving more during the day, taking a couple of walking breaks or walking to the shop instead of driving is a great place to start and then build from there until you feel ready to up the intensity.

What exercise should I do for my mental health?

Best way to feel the benefits of exercise on your mental health? Make the movement something you actually want to do… so you’ll keep at it!

You could join a class or group with a good social vibe. This means that firstly it’s a fun environment but also exercising in that way becomes the norm – everyone else is doing it so it can help to normalise it for you.

For the same reason, if groups aren’t your thing you could enlist a friend and go to the gym or do an activity together.

Alternatively, if you prefer to exercise alone, you could pair your session up with something else you enjoy and do that just before or after you exercise. This is called temptation bundling. You’re increasing the instant gratification that you get from exercising (which has more longer-term benefits) with something that you enjoy right now.

It could be that you only watch tv/read your book/visit a friend once you have completed your session. Or perhaps you pop into your favourite coffee shop before a workout. You’ll know what is going to be best to pair exercise with to increase that immediate temptation and get you starting to associate exercise with that other activity.

You might be thinking – ok but is there a BEST exercise for mental health? Well, there’s not been enough research into specific activities and their differing levels of impact but there’s a reason that people tend to ditch their workout routines or fluctuate between a few months of prioritising exercise followed by a few months of de-motivation. And that’s simply because they don’t enjoy whatever it is they’re doing enough. And this is something that’s going to be very personal to you.

We all find enjoyment in different activities for different reasons. And some people will find it harder to find a good fit than others, however, the amount of different things to try is constantly growing so I really encourage you to keep trying new things.

Overcoming obstacles

Too often than not there’s often something in everyday life that gets in the way of people exercising – whether that is lack of time, energy, a better offer coming up or simply the classic ‘nothing to wear’ excuse.

What you’ll need to do is identify what the most likely reasons are that would stop you from exercising on any typical day and then prepare for them.

I don’t have enough time to exercise

So, let’s run through a few examples, taking a lack of time first. Now this is one that many people will say is a big obstacle but really for the majority of people, it’s only a perceived obstacle. If you think about the amount of waking hours in each day – let’s say sixteen hours (assuming an eight-hour sleep) – and take eight hours away for work – that leaves us with eight hours. Now it might be that you sleep for longer or work for longer or both, but let’s say you’ll have around eight hours left to play with.

You’ll of course need to get ready in the morning, have time for meals and you’ll want some time to relax and unwind at the end of the day. But you can boost your mental well-being and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression from just thirty minutes of exercise a few times per week.

Thirty minutes out of eight hours? I’m gonna leave that there. And I know that things like getting to the gym/class/group can take up more time but if it is a priority, most of us really do have the time to spare. A lot of the time, it’s just about planning your week ahead of time.

On that note then, if you can’t easily get to a gym etc, why not try a home workout? And if you don’t want to exercise alone, invite a friend over. This could also be part of that temptation bundling tool I mentioned earlier. You could make a nice evening of it: have them over a couple of times a week to do a home workout or maybe go for a run/cycle/skip with rope and then have some food and watch tv together after. There are so many workouts you can follow online or if you’re not sure where to start you can enlist the help of an online coach.

I’m too tired to exercise

You might find that you often lack the energy to exercise and this could be for a variety of reasons – and you might already have an idea why this is the case for you personally.

Not enough sleep

A common reason for lack of energy is simply not sleeping well. A few tips here are making sure you’re not looking at screens for an hour before trying to sleep and doing something that helps you wind down to avoid your mind going at a million miles an hour while lying in bed. This could be reading a book, listening to an audiobook or practising meditation. I personally find a bit of guided meditation to do the trick. Calm (app) is a great place to start or even Spotify. 

Not enough fuel

Another reason is not fueling your body properly if you’ve put yourself on an extreme diet, so this might be something to look at (this is something I help a lot of my clients with in terms of still making sure they’re in a deficit to lose weight if that is their goal but in a healthy way, still giving their body everything it needs).

I don’t have anything to wear to the gym!

The ‘nothing to wear’ excuse is probably going to be one of the simplest. Getting into a good laundry routine is going to be an important part of your exercise routine!

It doesn’t matter if you only have a few clothes suitable for exercising, it’s not a fashion show and if you are going to a group class, trust me, everyone is wayyyy more focussed on themselves – firstly getting through the workout but also a lot of people can feel anxiety being in groups and may be worrying about how they look too…if you asked them what you were wearing the next day they probably wouldn’t have a clue! 

I’m sure there will be more obstacles that get in your way when you come to exercise but that’s just a few examples and how you could potentially prepare for them and therefore set yourself up for success (i.e. completing the session!) If there are others I haven’t mentioned and you’re struggling to find a way around them, feel free to comment below or drop me a message on Instagram (@liftyourselfconfident) and we can brainstorm ideas!

Reward yourself

Ok so once we’ve successfully completed our session, we need to reward our behaviour, which may sound silly but it really does work for humans – it’s not just something used for dog training!

Put simply, our brains remember the feeling of reward after the session and associate that feeling with the actual exercise, which makes us want to keep doing it.

So, figure out a good reward that you can implement for yourself. You could also keep some sort of record to show how many sessions you have completed and after a specific number, say twenty, you could do a different, better reward. Kind of like rewards cards you get at some coffee shops.

This could be visiting your favourite restaurant, buying yourself a lil something, going to the cinema etc. And if you do miss a session, don’t be too hard on yourself – building new habits are difficult, but do try to get back on track immediately and not miss two sessions in a row as this can make it harder to stick to the routine again.

Have fun

There is one really important factor that I haven’t explicitly mentioned yet which is that it’s possible to have fun while exercising. Having fun and feeling the benefits of the exercise on your mental health go hand in hand!

It doesn’t all have to be gruelling spinning classes with pumping music and shouting instructors that leave you feeling absolutely annihilated and unable to walk the next day. There are so many ways to get moving and you’re bound to find one that you enjoy.

Firstly you need to consider whether you would prefer to exercise in a group, with a partner or by yourself. You might not know yet so you can also try each out and see what you end up enjoying most.

After that, it’s what sort of exercise you might fancy – it could be running, swimming, dancing, cycling, hiking, a racquet sport, a ball sport, HIIT workouts, lifting weights, or something completely different. Again, if you’re not sure what to try, try out a few different ideas and see what floats your boat. Alternatively, you can ask for help from a professional (oh wait, that’s me! 😉) A lot of my clients are complete beginners and we find out together what they enjoy and what works best for them.

Granted, my services are all based in a studio-gym environment but it might be that a structured programme is something you would like to try. For me, although you get more of the post-workout high after intense cardio activities like running, nothing beats the feeling of pushing your body to the limit and feeling more powerful than you felt before your session because you’ve lifted eeeven heavier today.

If you know that lifting isn’t for you, however, my door is still open to help you find an activity that is, so please don’t hesitate to drop me a dm over on Insta (@liftyourselfconfident) or drop a comment below.

Benefits of exercise on your mental health summary

Finally, I would just like to leave you with this: exercise can often be seen as a tedious chore that people tick off and are relieved to have done so.

However, see if you can view it differently. View each session as a step forward, as progress to a healthier, happier you and appreciate the fact that you are able to move in the way that you can.

Appreciate the movement, focus on your breath, and on the rush of adrenaline that makes you feel more alive than ever. Feel the burn in your muscles and think of how you are getting fitter and stronger not just physically, but mentally and psychologically too.

Seeing it this way can increase the benefits of exercise on your mental health and add to the sense of achievement and accomplishment you feel. Every time you exercise is an extra step in the right direction and can lead to you eventually looking forward to exercising (imagine that!). 

I hope this has helped in some way or another and if you are just starting out, or thinking about it, take it from someone who used to suffer severe depression and was literally saved by this form of medicine –  and get started asap!

I’ve run through a few ideas above and hopefully, it has inspired you to think of what might work for you. And if you need help, motivation or both getting started, drop me a message and we can discuss availability.

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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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