Why exercise is good for your mental health
Words: Leila Petersen | Images: Supplied
There is no denying the benefits of exercise. Aside from the positive effect physical exercise has on your body - from improving cardiovascular health to building muscle - your favourite workout can lift your spirits too.
A study conducted by Walden University by Professor Shawna Charles, proves the connection between good mental and physical health, further supporting the notion that exercise can improve mood, reduce anxiety, alleviate depression, and has the potential to enhance our overall well-being.
Even 10 minutes of brisk walking can increase our mental alertness and energy, making us feel more positive.
The reason being; when we exercise, our bodies release endorphins, which are one of the four feel-good chemicals. And let's face it, with all the challenges we’ve had in the last year, we could all do with mood-uplifting exercises.
What many people don’t realise, though, is just how profound an impact working out can have on mental health. To gain a better understanding of just how beneficial physical activity is on your psychological well-being, we've reached out to some key experts in the field.
Read on to discover why there’s so much more to exercise than just keeping fit.
MEET THE EXPERTS
Personal trainer, yoga teacher, fitness, wellness and parenting blogger, and owner of Fabufit Yoga and Movement - a mobile fitness service and online movement platform.
Owner and instructor of Fitness Fusion and Fitness Fusion Food - a women’s holistic wellness and training facility that specialises in personal training, Pilates, yoga, and fusion HIIT.
A certified personal trainer, Dorian is passionate about coaching parents to live a healthy, balanced lifestyle so that they can be great role models, and keep up with their kids.
ELEVATE YOUR MOOD
“When you are feeling low, MOVE,” says Dorian.
When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, dopamine, adrenaline, and endocannabinoid - these are all brain chemicals associated with feeling happier and more confident.
Another bonus? It does not have to cost a thing.
“Exercise is probably one of the easiest, most cost-effective ways to elevate your mood and help with managing your mental health,” confirms Wardah.
A simple walk in nature can do wonders. On a scientific level, the endorphins that are released interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain and are natural mood elevators. So even if you wake up feeling your lowest, you are guaranteed to feel so much better by just moving your body.
BOOST BRAIN FUNCTION
From stimulating healthy brain function to strengthening memory, exercise boosts brain power in a number of ways. Shakera says this is because “the same endorphins that make you feel better also help you concentrate and feel mentally sharp for tasks at hand.”
She also goes on to say that physically - when you exercise - your heart rate goes up which, in turn, increases oxygen to the brain. This not only keeps the heart healthy but also assists in helping you be alert and focused.
Wardah adds that “exercise also stimulates the growth of new brain cells which boosts overall cognitive function and memory, while preventing age-related decline.
For Dorian, the proof is in the pudding.
“One thing I know for sure is that after three months of training, I don't have to remind my clients to show up. They remember.”
So if you’re in need of inspiration, your big idea could be just a walk or jog away.
CALMS ANXIETY + STRESS
We can all agree that the last year has been extra stressful and exercise might just be the key in helping your brain cope better with this stress.
“The pandemic has had a negative impact on our lives with record-high anxiety and stress levels”, says Dorian, who believes that living a healthy active lifestyle will put you in a much better position to manage your anxiety and stress levels.
“A 30-minute walk in nature has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, calm your nerves, and lift your mood,” he says.
For Shakera it’s all about self-care. “Setting some time aside to make yourself feel better will not only increase your self-worth but, in turn, you improve confidence which reduces anxiety and stress. She also goes on to say that “ when you are active and doing something for yourself, you have less time to focus on negative thoughts and energy.”
INCREASE YOUR ENERGY LEVELS
Exercising uses your energy while you’re doing it, but then it gives it back to you in spades.
“It sounds counterintuitive, but when you feel flat and in a energy slump, the best thing you can do is to move your body and exercise! It’s true”, says Wardah.
It may seem surprising that exercise can help you have more energy if you’re tired or fatigued, to begin with, but that’s actually the case. She credits this to the fact that “cellular level changes will happen in the body when you exercise. The exertion of exercise will encourage your body to produce more mitochondria inside your muscle cells. Having more of them will increase your body’s energy supply.”
She further notes that moving your body and breaking a sweat also boosts your oxygen circulation - this supports the mitochondria’s energy production, which allows your body to work better and use its energy better.
Another benefit Shakera highlights is that you sleep better when you work out. This is due to the fact that “your body composition changes and you carry more lean muscle mass which makes you feel less sluggish, making you more energetic and strong,” she says.
GIVE YOUR SELF-ESTEEM + CONFIDENCE LEVELS A BOOST
Working out can have positive effects far beyond those rippling biceps. Gaining self-confidence, getting out of a funk, and even thinking more creatively are some of the great reasons to exercise on a regular basis.
“When you’re in a good mood and you feel healthier and stronger in your body, it’s only natural that your self-esteem will increase and your confidence levels will be boosted,” says Wardah.
Regular physical activity is an investment in your mind, body, and soul. When it becomes a habit, it can foster your sense of self-worth and make you feel strong and powerful. You’ll feel better about your appearance and by meeting even small exercise goals you’ll feel a sense of achievement.
“You have something to look forward to when you work out. If you set a goal for yourself, even if it’s just to improve fitness levels, your self-esteem will Improve when you see how much you’ve achieved,” adds Shakera.
Exercise can improve your mood,, make your brain stronger, and help prevent anxiety. That said, you may need more than exercise to improve your mental health, and it's important to be honest with yourself about your needs.
Wardah further explains that “those happy hormones; endorphins which are the brain’s neurotransmitters will definitely help to make you feel better and act as a stress reliever. However, this is not the only remedy for stress and anxiety. If it becomes unbearable, consulting your health professional for additional medical intervention is also important if need be.”