Exercise and its Impact on your Mental Health

Matt Little – Strength & Conditioning Coach
Strength and Conditioning Coach to Andy Murray. Public Speaker and provider of Elite Sports Performance Strategies.

Remember how great you’ve felt after a bracing walk along a beautiful wintery beach, a little yoga stretching in the sun, or whizzing on a bike along winding country lanes? If so, you may have already realised that body and mind are interlinked in both positive and negative ways.
Adopting good exercise habits has been extensively proven to have a positive impact on the brain. On the other hand, not exercising at all will have no impact at all, and in some cases a negative impact.
There are so many avenues to explore in this area, but here’s a brief précis of how exercise can benefit your mental wellbeing.

‘Feel-good’ hormones…

We know that those who exercise regularly, experience a release of Endorphins, (the hormone responsible for the natural rush of the “feel good factor”). This rush of hormones can become addictive, so along with many things, it is suggested that even exercise should be performed in moderation.

Depending on your personal fitness levels, it may take 10 minutes of exercise for this hormonal release to begin (although some studies highlight that, with some activities, it can take up to an hour). The kind of training, i.e. moderate intensity, has been shown to elicit positive feelings, as opposed to negative ones of the high-intensity type because of how severe this modality may have been to carry out. Endorphins also have another benefit, as when in the bloodstream, they can reduce the brain’s perception of physical pain (noted in hundreds of studies on this subject as well as meta-analytic reviews).

However, it has been contested recently that Endorphins in the bloodstream do not cross over into the brain and that the post-exercise “high” is a result of other naturally occurring chemicals; for example, serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. But exercise has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to boost mood states and fight the symptoms of depression.

Find your balance...

Another hormone often talked about in the health and fitness realm is Cortisol, dubbed ‘the stress hormone’. Too much stress leads to a high presence of Cortisol in the bloodstream. This can cause the liver to release insulin, allowing sugar to absorb into the muscles for “Fight or Flight”, which can lead to increased fat storage. Exercise can help this, by both reducing the amounts of fat stored, and by burning the fat that is stored, finally lowering the stress itself.

Taking a day of pent-up stress and frustration out in the gym can be incredibly cathartic; potentially transforming a bad day into a perfect one. But take note, too much exercise and not enough rest can increase Cortisol levels, so finding the right balance of action and rest is the key.

Increased energy levels…It has been proven that the fitter you become, the more energetic you can be in general. Also, you can have more consistent energy levels during the day, where typically, sluggishness would occur (e.g. mid-afternoon or first thing in the morning). Fitter people are more productive than unfit people. If you listen to most of the world’s most influential business leaders, politicians and high achievers, the vast majority of them have daily routines which include exercise. Exercise can help with mental acuity, cognitive function and sharpness.

Sleep duration and quality is an area that we can all relate to as being hugely important for our feeling of well-being. Scientific studies have highlighted that these too are improved for those who take regular exercise. Most obviously, this is because of being physically more tired at night time, and also less stressed.

Get Social…

In addition, a huge benefit of participation in any form of a regular programme of exercise is the boost to your self-confidence. As you may not only look better, but you may also perform tasks with higher efficiency, overcoming physical obstacles and challenges you didn’t think were possible before. But dare we suggest that, aesthetics play a part too, as fitting back into your smaller jeans is a massive boost for much of the world’s population?

Another less tangible benefit of many areas of physical activity is that it can be very social. Attending a particular gym, club, team or even class can develop a real sense of belonging and connection through shared experiences, a joint interest and going through pain with others can be a real plus. A kinship can form with people who would otherwise be strangers, when encouraging each other during exercise; proving that it can break down barriers, race, religion, gender and class. Equally, a visit to a gym or exercise class can also be quality “me time” if you prefer.

Healthy diet, healthy mind?

Of course, exercise fits into a multi-faceted approach to leading a healthy lifestyle. Probably the most closely linked aspect to exercise is diet. My reason for including this in this article is that often the two go hand in hand. Those who train regularly are acutely aware of the added benefits of eating properly to support their goals and maintain their energy levels. A healthy, balanced diet has also been shown to promote improved mental status. In fact, the Mental Health Foundation state:

“Nearly two-thirds of those who do not report daily mental health problems eat fresh fruit or fruit juice every day, compared with less than half of those who do. This pattern is the same for fresh vegetables and salad. Those who report some level of mental health problem also eat fewer healthy foods (fresh fruit and vegetables, organic foods and meals made from scratch) and more unhealthy foods (chips and crisps, chocolate, ready meals and takeaways).”

They suggest, that to help your balanced mood and feelings of well-being, try and include adequate amounts of complex carbohydrates, essential fats, amino acids, vitamins and minerals and water in your diet.

Brain Food…

Exercise cannot solve but can help prevent the onset of cognitive decline. It does this by boosting the chemicals which maintain the health of a part of your brain called the ‘hippocampus’. This regulates emotions and also controls your long-term memory, which has links to diseases of the brain, like Alzheimer’s.

The final impact that exercise can have on mental health is to help control addiction. As discussed, dopamine is a by-product of physical activity as it is a “reward” or “pleasure” chemical for the brain.

This is similar to the release caused by drugs and alcohol, so exercise can help to replace such dopamine cravings. It can also help those who are recovering from addiction by way of providing a positive distraction from cravings. For example, by improving sleep habits (which are problematic when giving up drugs) and promoting an all-round happier, healthier person.

Excercise is a key cornerstone of the BREVIN approach.

At BREVIN we approach each client’s situation as unique. Fundamentally we integrate the principals of Matt’s ideas to help our clients to a healthier state that positively affects a persons mental illness. Graded excercise is a considered approach that helps patients at all levels to feel better physically, without pressuring you into unachievable goals and undo over zealous personal trainers. Graded excercise specialists are just that, they are not personal trainers, they experts in involving the patient in a programme at their capacity, helping both movement and function.

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