The latest scientific research points to moderate levels of exercise being a ‘miracle drug’, not just for physical health, but for mental health too. Interestingly, studies monitoring people over time show that those with lower fitness levels experience higher levels of depression and anxiety.
In keeping with these new studies, the World Health Organisation (WHO) updated its global physical activity guidelines; which in brief, highlights that any form of movement is better than none. These guidelines recommend that all adults should be aiming to do 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity, or 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity, aerobic exercise every week, or an equivalent combination of the two.
“For years people have become more sedentary and one of the main reasons we created Gift Fit is to encourage people to be more active and to try new fitness experiences” says Ali Sheik, founder of online fitness voucher site, Gift Fit.
“We want people to gift their friends and family vouchers that they might not necessarily buy themselves. Personally, I love to box and it’s been fantastic for my overall fitness and great for my mental health. I also discovered cold water dipping during lockdown and although I don’t do it as regularly as I’d like it has incredible benefits for your mind and body. Walking the dog is another great way that helps me cope with the stresses and strains of everyday life – there is nothing better than being out in nature”
Since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, there has been a growing narrative around people wanting to take up some form of exercise, to stay as healthy, not just for their physical fitness, but also for the mental health challenges that many began to face.
6 ways that exercise benefits your mental health
Physical activity boosts our self-esteem, especially when new personal skills are acquired (‘self-mastery’). This has consistently been fed back from self-report questionnaire data and can be a great distraction technique after a day of back-to-back virtual meetings, or a day in the office!
Within the last decade, there is greater societal awareness of ‘mindfulness’, encouraging our full presence within the moment and being able to make detached observations about our environment. These mindful movement techniques can be cultivated through exercises such as yoga, swimming, walking, or high intensity classes such as boxing – and can help to reduce stress, as well as helping you manage stressful situations in a more productive way.
Professional sporting outfits understand how poor sleep impacts on performance and recovery. It also has an impact on your mental health, too. Luckily, exercising can help you to sleep better. Studies have demonstrated how different forms of exercise can improve sleep efficiency (percentage of time spent asleep whilst in bed) – just make sure to avoid intense exercising close to bedtime.
Exercise can improve working memory and ‘higher-order’ (executive) cognitive functions – a key modifiable, lifestyle risk factor reducing the chances of dementia. Obviously we can’t change our genetic risks, but there’s still a lot we can do to prevent this neurodegenerative illness. More scientific information on modifiable lifestyle risk factors in dementia can be accessed through Prof Gill Livingston’s work.
Exercise can be a potentially powerful antidepressant, regardless of depression intensity (Schuh et al. 2016). It’s been shown to work well for older adults doing group exercises, reinforcing the benefits of socialising as we age.
Despite these clear benefits, the experience of depression can directly impact motivation and energy levels. Therefore, this may not be a go-to strategy for all. Also, non-regular exercisers and those with physical health conditions may require medical clearance to ensure their safety.
Brain biology booster
The role of exercise on brain mechanics and mental illness remains an enigma, although researchers have identified some of these key mechanisms. For example, exercise enhances key brain connections, signalling pathways and blood flow patterns. Also, it can reduce inflammation and rejuvenate brain cells (neurogenesis) and hormones.
Being part of a group or community, with like-minded people, can have a huge impact on how you feel. Fitness and exercise should be inclusive and adaptive boxing and yoga classes are now being promoted to a wider audience in the hope they will encourage those with physical and mental disabilities to join in person, or virtually.
“Exercise is the key not only to physical health but also peace of mind” – Nelson Mandela
The benefits of exercise are clear for people to see and understand. And as more awareness grows around the connection between mental health and fitness, there could be more discussion around the possibility of GP’s and other medical professionals prescribing exercise classes as part of a patient’s care. This may not only lead to less reliance on medication, but also introduce new experiences that have additional cognitive benefits through new movements and task related goals.
Mental health and well-being are now very much part of the public conversation and that’s something Dorset Mind has been working towards for many years. With more and more people realising the benefits that exercise can bring, hopefully we will see a new wave of social prescribing and endorphin inducing activities being recommended.
Visit Gift Fit to see what experiences are available in your area.
Our Guest Blogger:
Huge thanks to Ali from GiftFit for writing this extremely insightful piece on the link between physical and mental wellbeing.
Dorset Mind offers group support that can also help with your wellbeing. The group offers peer support and helps to reduce stigma by normalizing conversations about mental health. You can also check out further support for stress and mental health here.