Whatever your fitness level, exercise can be used to improve your mental health. In fact, more and more evidence is suggesting that movement through exercise not only improves your mental health but protects it.
You may have heard of the “feel-good hormones” endorphins, but when you exercise, many more hormones are produced than just this one – all of which contribute to making us feel good.
Previous research has suggested that the higher the exercise intensity, the more endorphins are produced. However, we now know that the mood-boosting effects of exercise can be felt at moderate-intensity exercise too. You do not have to get sweaty or exhaust yourselves to reap the benefits, actually, any dose of exercise will have an effect - walking for ten minutes can be a mood lifter!
What exercise is best?
The one you like to do! Both aerobic (e.g. jogging, swimming, brisk walking) and anaerobic (e.g. HIIT, strength, circuit training) forms of exercise have different benefits to different people. Individual preference really is the key driver for its mood-boosting benefits. A combination of the two has been shown to be equally affective at reducing anxiety, and positively impacting one’s mood. It may depend on how you’re feeling on the day, which level intensity exercise will have better outcomes for your mood – for example, while a HIIT workout will make your body stronger in many ways, because of the cortisol response it generates, it is perceived by the body as stress. If you’re already juggling stressful home and/or work situations, a super-intense workout may just send your stress and anxiety levels even higher, so you probably won’t benefit as much from that workout in terms of mood levels.
Group or solo?
For the psychological effects, the most effective exercise regime is one that you can maintain, and that will factor into whether you prefer group exercise or doing it solo. One study found that the anti-depressive effects of exercise applied equally to participants doing regular aerobics classes in a group, and to those doing the same workout at home with remote instruction.
You might get different psychological benefits with social exercise – but you’re still going to feel benefits if you exercise alone. For a lot of people, having an “accountability buddy” can be really helpful in supporting regular exercise. You may also find it harder to challenge yourself when working out solo – and, while any movement is better than none, reaching a new personal best is another route to feeling good.
On top of this, combining exercise with socialising is a great way of introducing movement into your lifestyle if you currently don’t do much, and in the summer months it’s a great excuse to spend more quality time outdoors, getting your dose of natural vitamin D!
Please note that if you are new to exercising, you may not feel those “feel-good hormones” straight away post exercise - it can take about six weeks of regular exercise for your brain to anticipate that “feel-good factor”. In the meantime, do whatever you can to make the experience more enjoyable – whether it’s by roping in friends or adding an upbeat soundtrack - all of which will give you a more immediate reward for movement while your brain catches up.
Make activity a lifestyle
Consistency is king. Over time, the brain comes to associate exercise with that burst of happy-making chemicals, making it want to do it over and over again. It’s important for the brain to learn that exercise is rewarding and make it a habit.
By combining regular exercise and everyday movement, you not only help to alleviate anxiety, depression and other mood disorders, but also prevent their onset and regulate natural fluctuations of mood.
Just how long the mood-boost from movement lasts has not yet been explored by researchers, but any movement can only be beneficial - no dose too small, no movement too modest!
Written by Abigail Attenborough (ANutr)