I’m sure we’ve all heard that exercise is good for our mental health. But how exactly does it work and what type of exercise is the most effective?
Just like with any treatment, there is no one size fits all. We’re all different and I advice my clients to find their own, personal formula based on what kind of results they are looking for.
Below is a description of how exercise can help a variety of mental health issues. You may want to experiment to find the right program for you. Try keeping a mood journal and record how you felt before, during and after exercising to figure out what works best for you.
Depression and low mood
When we are depressed we generally have a deficit of the feel good hormone serotonin. Scientific studies show that exercise increases both serotonin production and release, making it a really effective mood booster. The most helpful forms of exercise for this is cardio / aerobic exercise, such as running, dancing or cycling.
Stress and anxiety
When we are stressed or anxious our bodies are in the so called “fight or flight mode”, producing an excess of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Exercise reduces these and also promotes endorphins, the brains natural mood elevators. When we are stressed or anxious blood flow to the brain is also reduced. Exercising will increase blood (and thereby oxygen) to the brain. Vigorous exercise such as HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) or spinning is the most effective for this, but other types of exercise, such as walking or swimming work as well.
Confidence and self esteem
All types of exercise help us to be more connected with our bodies and what we can do. This has a positive effect on our confidence and self esteem. Also, when engaging in any type of exercise for a number of months, we can see our performance improve, which naturally boosts our sense of achievement. The key is finding a type of exercise that you enjoy and can incorporate into your daily life, so that you’re more likely to stick with it.
Meaningful activity and distraction
The most prevalent thought processes in depression as well as anxiety are worrying and rumination. In general we tend to have too much time to think unhelpful thoughts and therefore any activity that takes us out of our own head and gives us a break from incessant thinking is good for our mental health. The best types of exercise for this are ones that require a lot of focus, like ball sports, mountain biking or yoga.
Loneliness and isolation
We humans are hardwired for connection and the isolation of our modern lifestyles has been linked to increasing rates of mental health issues. Participating in group activities, such as team sports will build connections and help us achieve a sense of belonging.
Connection with nature
The benefits of being in nature is well documented in relation to mental health, as green spaces and fresh air both contribute to lower stress hormones and increase wellbeing. Any activities that you can do in nature will therefore give you extra benefits. Some nature related activities include hiking, kayaking and wild swimming (*New research is showing that wild swimming is a particularly effective treatment for anxiety and depression as the cold water boosts circulation, regulates our breathing and boosts endorphins.)