Exercised Me Is a Happier Me

We are regularly reminded of the importance of exercise for improving and maintaining our physical health, whether it be in a T.V. advert or on a leaflet from the local gym. However, the link between exercise and improved mental health is not so commonly advertised, meaning the benefits are too often overlooked.

The mental health charity Mind aim to help anyone suffering from any form of mental illness. They have some great information on the positive effects of exercise on mental wellbeing, which you can take a look at here.

Here are five reasons why exercise should be everyone’s best friend:

1. Helping to regulate the stress hormone cortisol

Cortisol is a stress hormone released when we are anxious. People suffering with anxiety may have higher levels of cortisol, which means they may also have a heightened risk of developing physical health problems such as higher blood pressure and a lowered immune response. Physical exercise can improve our body’s ability to regulate cortisol levels and, therefore, reduce the negative health problems that anxiety can cause, as well as functioning as a way to improve our body's tolerance to stressful situations.

Exercise also releases endorphins, which are sometimes referred to as ‘feel good’ hormones that can leave you feeling happier after a good work out.

 2. Improving your sleep

The more exercise you do, the more tired you’re going to be when you snuggle into bed at night. Tiredness can actually mean that you have a more restful period of sleep and won’t wake up feeling like you want to stay in bed all day. Many forms of mental illness can leave you feeling fatigued, so fighting mental tiredness with a positive form of physical tiredness can really counteract that horrible feeling of being drained.

3. Breaking the chain of negative thoughts

Exercise can clear your thoughts. Most physical activities require a level of concentration and focus on the way you are moving your body. As a result, your thoughts are diverted from the negative chain of thoughts you may have gotten caught up in, giving you a chance to clear your mind and retrain your thoughts to more positive thinking.

4. Giving you the feel-good factor

The sense of achievement you get from completing any form of physical activity - especially when you’ve set a goal and you smash it - can greatly lift your mood. It can also improve your self-esteem, which the charity Mind suggest can greatly improve the satisfaction you get from your own life. The better you feel about yourself, the happier you can be.

5. Reducing the risk of depression

Mind also states that ‘increasing your activity levels from doing nothing to exercising at least three times a week, can reduce your risk of depression by almost 20%’.

Unfortunately, everyone goes through times where our mood is lower than usual and we just don’t feel at the top of our game. But, hopefully these feelings go away with the right support from family or friends, or simply just with the passing of time. For those suffering with depression these feelings can interfere with many more aspects of their life and may not pass - they reoccur and some may never feel like they have ever shaken those depressive thoughts. However, exercise can help some to cope with these low feelings and may prevent them becoming dangerous. 

Here are some exercises that you can begin to incorporate into your routine:

Yoga: relaxing and can help improve breathing techniques that may provide a coping mechanism in stressful situations.

Pilates: great for building up core strength and helping you feel grounded.

Walking: you can walk anywhere alone or in a group. Sometimes just wandering around can give you a great feeling of freedom.

Water-based activities: swimming and activities such as surfing can be extremely therapeutic. They often use all parts of your body, so you’re bound to feel sleepy by the end of the day.

Zumba: high intensity and provides good cardiovascular exercise, as well as combining music with some fun dancing!

Team sports:  can be great for some social interaction, giving you a great sense of belonging to a team. Team sport often builds friendships that can act as a great support network.

Running: gets your heart racing very quickly as well as providing you with a healthy dose of fresh air.

Gym activities: if you need to be in an environment where other people are exercising in order to stay motivated, the gym is definitely the best place to be. 

Where do I get the energy to fit in all of this exercise?

Often people suffering with forms of mental illness can feel tired, like they don’t have any energy to exercise. This is why it’s important to tailor your exercise routine to your own schedule. Find the time of day you feel most energetic and make sure that you exercise then. Try out exercise of a lower intensity level if you feel your energy reserves are low, making sure that you’re eating well at the same time. Find some foods that give you a boost so that you can build up a store of energy that will allow you to take part in exercise of a higher intensity further down the line.

Even small bursts of activity -  such as jogging for 15 minutes, or a quick 10 minute yoga session - can give you benefits, so try not to make excuses and say that you don’t have time to fit exercise in during the day! I know that if I stopped flicking through my phone for so long I could probably fit in a few hour-long exercise sessions a week that could make me a healthier and happier person. Once you feel the benefits of exercise, you’re more likely to want to make time for it and you’ll soon be treating it like an old friend.

It's important to remember that you must avoid throwing yourself in at the deep end. You don’t want to start off with setting yourself a goal of completing an hour long, high intensity exercise session and then end up putting yourself off exercise. If it made you feel unwell, gave you muscle ache for days on end, or even if you were unable to complete it, then instead of giving you a sense of achievement it will give you a feeling of failure. That is definitely not the aim. Any exercise of intensity or length is an achievement, so remember to build your stamina up gradually, be realistic with your goals, and (most importantly) be patient with yourself.

Remember, this is all about you. Take time out for yourself - you deserve it.