Can exercise improve your mental health?

During Shoulder to Shoulder mentor training sessions, we teach our volunteers the Five Ways to Wellbeing recommended by Mind and the Mental Health Foundation to help maintain good mental health: ConnectBe activeKeep learningGive… and Take notice.

Recently we've been focussing on getting active. We all know that exercise is good for you, but most people tend to focus on physical health benefits – level of fitness, reduced risk of chronic illnesses, weight – so what are the benefits for your mental health?  

Physical activity has been shown to boost confidence, improve body-image, self-esteem and self-worth, and can act as both prevention and treatment for various mental health problems including depression and anxiety.

Exercise decreases the stress hormones such as cortisol and increases endorphins.  Endorphins are the body’s natural feel good chemicals, and when they are released through exercise, your mood is boosted naturally. Exercise also releases adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine, all of which can have a positive effect on your mood and energy.

Even small increases in activity can be beneficial. Just 10 minutes of moderate exercise (such as brisk walking) is enough to improve your mood, increase motivation and decrease fatigue.

A survey by Mind found that 83% of people with mental health problems looked to exercise to help lift their mood or reduce stress. Two-thirds said exercise helped to relieve the symptoms of depression and more than half said it helped reduce anxiety.

Taking part in physical activities offers many other opportunities. It’s a great way to meet people and connect with friends, or it can be a chance to give yourself some quiet time and take your mind off things. Exercise can give you a goal to aim for and a sense of purpose.

Dr. Alan Cohen, a GP with a special interest in mental health, says that when people get depressed or anxious, they often feel they're not in control of their lives. “Exercise gives them back control of their bodies and this is often the first step to feeling in control of other events.”

The great thing about physical activity is that it’s incredibly varied, so it doesn’t have to be difficult, time consuming or boring. You can find activities that work for you and go at your own pace.  It’s also something easily incorporated into your daily life – a walk, doing housework and gardening all count! 

When we train our volunteer mentors, we encourage them to do some sort of physical activity when they meet up with the ex-servicemen and women they are mentoring. It could be something light to start with like joining a gardening club or walking around a museum, or something more active like joining a gym, swimming, yoga, hiking in the countryside or playing sports such as football and rugby (all things suggested  by the veterans on Shoulder to Shoulder). It doesn’t have to be anything big - for some people something as simple as leaving the coffee shop and going for a walk in the park once in a while can make a huge difference.