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  • Writer's pictureKate Bradshaw

Jumping Back into Health

You already know how good exercise is for your physical health, but you might be surprised by how good exercise is for your mental health.

Studies show that for treating mild-moderate depression, exercise can have a positive benefit as part of a treatment plan.

Exercise can make you feel better, even if you’re feeling okay. It can reduce the risk of illnesses like heart and lung disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, cancer, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson's disease.

Exercise helps people recover from a stroke and many other illnesses and conditions. Exercise also helps you to lose weight if you want to, which is good for your health overall and might be good for your self-esteem.

Mental health benefits of exercise

Exercise makes you feel good because it releases chemicals like endorphins and serotonin that improve your mood. It can also get you out in the world, help to reduce any feelings of loneliness and isolation, and put you in touch with other people.If you exercise regularly , it can reduce your stress and symptoms of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, and help with recovery from mental health issues. Exercise also helps improves your sleep, which is important in many different ways. There are many ways that exercise positively influences your mental health:

  • Promotes the release of feel-good chemicals in your brain, like endorphins and serotonin.

  • It helps you sleep better so you rest fully at night and feel more energised during the day.

  • Gives you a sense of accomplishment as your fitness improves and you start achieving your goals.

  • Exercise is usually a shared activity with others so you get the added benefits of social connection.

To reap these benefits, it’s generally recommended you do 30 minutes of ‘vigorous’ exercise at least five times a week. Vigorous just means you’re putting in enough effort that it’s hard to have a conversation while you’re exercising. Don’t get too disheartened if these guidelines feel unachievable, it’s important to remember that while more exercise is better than less – any exercise is better than no exercise.

Of course, the hardest part is getting started. Especially if you’re experiencing a mental health condition like depression, where the idea of just getting out of bed can seem hard enough. Exercise can play a major part in and should be in your treatment or management plan. If you’re waiting for motivation to arrive at your doorstep before you start exercising, you might be waiting a long time. The secret truth of motivation is that it actually comes after you take action – not before. By starting small and experiencing some benefits, you give motivation a chance to turn up and it loves riding on the momentum you’re building.

Psychological Benefits

Exercise has many benefits, not only for your physical health but also your mental health. In your brain, exercise stimulates chemicals that improve your mood and the parts of the brain responsible for memory and learning. So why does keeping your body moving also benefit your brain? As usual in science, documenting the why is slower than documenting the what. Great, exercise will make me healthy in body and mind. Easy, right? Not really. Studies show that the key to success is adherence, which is not so straightforward. The first obstacle is motivation and research shows that adding motivation-enhancing techniques to an exercise intervention improves adherence and therefore outcomes.

However, our best evidence so far suggests the following mechanisms:

  • Physiological changes: Increased endorphin production, reduced sympathetic nervous system activity, and modulation of neuroendocrine systems involved in mood.

  • Improved sleep: Poor sleep is often both a symptom and aggravating factor of psychological distress but exercise helps improve sleep.

  • Behavioural activation: Exercise combats the social and general activity withdrawal that often accompanies mood and anxiety disorders but only makes them worse.

  • Increased mastery and self-efficacy: Feelings of achievement at attaining exercise goals and learning new physical skills help reduce anxiety and depression.

  • Exposure to feared bodily sensations: Most anxiety disorders feature a tendency to misinterpret or ‘catastrophise’ about uncomfortable sensations, so exercise is a form of graded exposure that reduces their threat value.

Reducing rumination: Exercising can be attentionally demanding, which helps disrupt unhelpful patterns of repetitive negative thinking that often drive depression and anxiety.

Exercise and the mind

Exercise pumps blood to the brain, which should make you think more clearly.

It increases the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory.

It also increases the connections between the nerve cells in the brain. This improves your memory and helps protect your brain against injury and disease.

How much exercise do you need?

Australian Government guidelines recommend adults do at least 30 minutes of moderate to intensive physical activity on most or all days of the week. You can make up 30 minutes over the day by combining shorter 10–15 minute sessions.

Practising mindfulness while doing exercise also reduces your stress and improves your mental health. If money is a worry, think about local community centres, which often have affordable exercise groups. And if you have private health insurance, you might get help for gym membership as part of a mental health care plan.

You may struggle finding motivation, or staying motivated for exercise. Think about ways you can make exercise part of your daily routine and lifestyle. Choose something you enjoy, and ask your friends or family to help motivate you and to keep you on track.

If you own a dog, take them for walks in your local area. Combine your exercise routine with a healthy diet to boost your motivation and energy for exercise. If you want to read more about the benefits of exercise on the brain, please click here.

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