Let’s Get Physical!

Sport has been all around us recently, with the World Cup, Wimbledon and the Tour de France.  Inspired by this, I’ve decided to use the August Ramble to explore the benefits of physical activity for our mental health.

At school I was never the sporty type, but when I was at University and struggling with my emotional health my parents’ solution was to sign me up to a gym.  The thought filled me with dread, but I went along and can honestly say it’s the best thing I could have done.

I now go to the gym at least three times a week and swear by its benefits, both physical and emotional.  I love chatting to people I’ve got to know at the gym, and I go to a variety of classes – some, like body combat, are very energetic, and get me fired up. Others, such as yoga, are lovely and chilled, taking the daily stresses and strains away from my back and shoulders.

In my working life, I meet many people struggling with debilitating depression and anxiety, and nine times out of ten they tell me that they have stopped exercising.  Once they start getting more active again they invariably start to feel better.

All this anecdotal evidence got me wondering – just what is it about physical activity and mental health?  After looking into research I’ve discovered that these are the main benefits…

Improved physical health: our minds and bodies are linked in many ways, so it makes sense that if we feel healthy in body we will feel healthy in mind too.  If we have certain long-term physical health conditions or chronic pain, gentle physical activity can help us to manage these better, thereby improving our mood and sense of control.

Chemistry: when we exercise our brains release ‘happy hormones’ called endorphins, which have been scientifically proven to lift our mood and reduce anxiety and depression.  We also produce more dopamine and serotonin, which are believed to help our brain cells to communicate with each other more effectively.

Thoughts: while you’re focusing on physical activity your attention is taken away from overthinking and worrying.  It’s hard to worry about that work meeting when you’re focused on scoring the next goal for your team or trying to keep your balance in yoga!  After having a break from negative thoughts, you may find that your mind feels clearer and calmer, enabling you to deal with problems better than you could beforehand.

Self-esteem: physical activity can be a real boost to how we feel about ourselves. Setting small goals and then achieving them is a great feeling.  As you start to notice improvements in your fitness levels and wellbeing it will encourage you to carry on.  You may also learn a new skill, such as how to play a team sport or become a better gardener.  

Connection: getting more physically active can help you to connect with others and combat loneliness – a topic I covered in my February Ramble.  You may wish to join a team sport, or even just going for a walk can help you to connect with your neighbours and local community.  

Sleep: problems sleeping are very common when we are feeling low, anxious or stressed, and it can make everything feel even worse.  Research has shown that people who engage in regular physical activity tend to have a better night’s sleep. Exercise tires our bodies and increases the need for good quality sleep to regulate our circadian rhythms.  

With all the above in mind, it’s time to get moving!  What can you do to increase your physical activity?  

There are lots of ways you can increase your physical activity and it’s important that you find something that you are going to enjoy and make a regular part of your routine.  You may want to consider some of these options: leave the car at home and get out for a walk; park further away from your destination than you usually would; take the stairs instead of the lift; use the free equipment available in many in local parks; do some housework or gardening; join a gym or check out free fitness videos online (YouTube and Instagram are great for this).

Remember, it’s important to approach physical activity in the right frame of mind, it shouldn’t be a ‘punishment’ or something you ‘should do’.  Avoid putting pressure on yourself or setting unrealistic goals which are going to set you up to fail.  Likewise, take it easy, know your limits and don’t do anything which could damage your body.  As with all things, balance is key.