How does exercise affect mental health?

March 18, 2021

Health & Wellbeing

Some people meditate to relieve stress, whilst others turn to hobbies such as cooking, travelling and knitting. The mind-body connection is so significant that what we physically do with our body can impact our mental state, and vice versa–what we think and feel can affect our biological functioning. So it should come as no surprise that exercise can hugely affect our mood, stress levels, thoughts, feelings and behaviour.

This is not news, because many of us who already exercise or play a sport on a regular basis know how much of a stress outlet moving your body can be. However, to others, this may be a new phenomenon. We hear a lot about exercising to slim down, improve aerobic capacity, build muscle strength and improve overall health, but how many people use their mental wellbeing as the only motivation to exercise?

Exercise and stress

At least once in a while, everybody experiences the physical consequences of stress. Whether long-term or short-term, you may begin to feel your neck and shoulders grow tense, or be prone to continuous headaches. Some people even experience heart palpitations, a tight chest, or highly uncomfortable muscle cramps. Those suffering from stress tend to experience insomnia, diarrhea, and heartburn much more frequently, and can lead to even more anxious feelings if the symptoms have a sudden onset.

When you exercise, you effectively break this cycle. Have you ever noticed, during a morning run or even just an afternoon walk, that your mind starts to wander off the initial thought that was causing you stress? On top of this, exercising causes neurotransmitters called endorphins to be released in the brain, helping to relax the muscles and relieve all this stored up tension in the body. In turn, your mind will start to relax too. Endorphins are manufactured in many parts of your body, but most prominently your brain and spinal cord.

Exercise, depression and anxiety

Research has shown that endorphins release such a positive feeling to the body, that the effects are similar to morphine. However, unlike morphine, the release of endorphins will not lead to addiction or dependence. Many fitness enthusiasts often talk about the feeling of euphoria that they experience when exercising, or even a ‘runner’s high’. Endorphins act as analgesics, meaning that they can reduce your perception of pain.

With all of these factors in mind, it becomes less surprising of a fact that exercising can almost act as an antidepressant medication, but without the side-effects. In fact, exercise can lead to new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being in the brain.

Another reason exercising can combat feelings of depression and anxiety is that often times, exercising is repetitive. If you focus on the specific sensations of exercising–your legs moving to a certain beat when cycling, the rhythmic breathing when doing your favourite yoga routine–you are effectively interrupting the flow of negative thoughts running through your head.

Where do I start?

If you have yet to develop an exercise regime and it seems a little intimidating, don’t despair. Research has shown that even just a few minutes of physical activity is better for your mind than nothing at all. This includes activities like cleaning up the house, walking to work, or playing with your kids in the garden. And if you do begin an exercise routine but can’t seem to follow through with it, that’s okay too. If you need a break after 5 or 10 minutes, take it. Over time, your body will adjust and replenish itself with more energy than was previously needed.

A few things to remember: focus on the exercise you enjoy the most, do whatever is comfortable for you, and reward yourself afterwards with a sweet, healthy treat or a little extra me-time. Eventually, the everyday tensions you were experiencing before will slowly start to lift, and you will feel like a new, energised self!

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