Exercise and Mental Health

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There are many reasons why physical activity is good for your body – having a healthy heart and supple joints are just two.

Physical activity is also good for your mental health. Experts believe that exercise releases chemicals in your brain that make you feel good. Regular exercise can also boost your self-esteem and help you concentrate, sleep, look and feel better.

 "When I left the gym that morning I felt as if someone had given me a million pounds – it was the sense of achievement."

Being active doesn’t have to mean going to the gym, taking up jogging or wearing lycra. There are lots of ways to be active - and they don’t need to cost much money.

As well as releasing natural chemicals that improve your mood and make you feel happier, having an active lifestyle can do more to help your mental health.

Taking part in physical activities offers many opportunities. It’s a great way to meet people. And it can be a chance to give yourself a well-deserved break from the hustle and bustle of daily life – to find some quiet time.

Leading an active life can help raise your self-worth and improve your confidence. It can help you feel valued – and value yourself.

Exercise and physical activity can provide something worthwhile in your life. Something that you really enjoy, that gives you a goal to aim for and a sense of purpose.

Here are a few of the benefits:

  • less tension, stress and mental fatigue
  • a natural energy boost
  • improved sleep
  • a sense of achievement
  • focus in life and motivation
  • less anger or frustration
  • a healthy appetite
  • better social life
  • having fun.

How active do I need to be?

You should aim to do 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week. It may sound like a lot, but it isn’t as daunting as it first appears.

Moderate exercise means being energetic enough so you:

  • breathe a little heavier than normal, but aren’t out of breath
  • feel warmer, but don’t end up hot and sweaty.

You don’t have to leap in at the full amount.

  • Build up slowly at a pace that suits you
  • You don’t have to do a solid half hour either. Find three ten-minute slots each day if that suits you – or two quarter hours.

Getting started

Once you have decided that you want to be more physically active, there are a few points it’s worth thinking about. Apart from improving your physical and mental well-being, what else do you want to get out of being active?

Do you want to:

  • make your daily life more energetic?
  • be indoors or out?
  • meet people?
  • do a group or individual activity?
  • try a new sport?

An active lifestyle doesn’t necessarily mean doing a sporty exercise, or limiting yourself to just one activity. A walk, doing housework and gardening are all physical activities.

Make time

  • What time do you have available for exercise?
  • You may need to re-jig commitments to make room for extra activities.
  • Alternatively, choose something that fits into your busy schedule.

Be practical

  • Consider any issues that could affect you.
  • Will you need support from friends and family?
  • Will your active lifestyle have an impact on others in your life?
  • Find out how much it will cost and, if necessary, what you can do to make it affordable.

Right for you

  • What kind of activity would suit you best?
  • Is there a specific part of your body you want to exercise?
  • Do you need to be more physically active at home? 
  • Do you want a change of scene? 
  • Do you like a structured activity that someone else has organised?

Making it part of daily life

Adopting a more active lifestyle can be as simple as doing daily tasks more energetically, or making small changes to your routine.

Here are a few suggestions.

At home

  • Walk the children or grandchildren to school, then jog home.
  • Push the mower with extra vigour.
  • Get an exercise DVD – and use it!
  • Speed up the housework – vac harder and faster till you’re warm. 
  • Put on some music for a ten minute dance.
  • Apply some real elbow grease when cleaning the car.
  • When you do get a break, go for a swim.

At work

  • Time your daily walks to and from the train station. Can you walk faster?
  • Use the stairs for journeys less than four floors.
  • Don’t pick up the phone, walk to see a colleague.
  • Use your lunch hour – take a brisk walk, do an exercise class or go for a swim
  • Walk or cycle a slightly longer route home – the change of scenery will do you good too.
  • Stop at the gym on your way home.

Out and about

  • Leave the car at home for short journeys.
  • Get off the bus a stop earlier, or get on a stop later.
  • Park at the far end of the supermarket car park, or walk to the shops.
  • Join in with your children’s/grandchildren’s games – be part of the football team.
  • Jog and walk the dog – jog ten paces, then walk ten.
  • Join an exercise class at your community centre – and meet your neighbours.

Overcoming barriers

It can be a bit scary making changes to your life. Most people get anxious about trying something new. Practical and emotional support from friends, family and experts really does help.

Fear of failure
Start with a beginners’ class then move on to the advanced group. Set realistic targets – start your new running schedule with a 1km walk or jog, then increase gradually.

Responsibilities
Having children or being a carer can make time scarce. Who can help give you a break? What services can you use, like a community crèche?

Money
Is cost a worry? Many councils offer discounted rates at gyms and leisure centres. Alternatively, choose an activity that is cheaper.

Social anxiety
Joining a new group can be daunting, so ask a friend to go along with you. If you are uncomfortable using communal changing rooms, or with the clothing you need to wear, leisure centre staff may have a solution. Otherwise try a single-sex gym or exercise class.

Feeling lost
If you can’t find your way round the leisure centre, ask the experts. Staff are there to help.

Transport
People at your activity class may share lifts, or try walking or cycling. If you are eligible, use your council dial-and-ride service. However you travel, always think how you will stay safe.

Overwhelmed
If life is getting on top of you, talk with your GP about how you feel before you get active. GPs can prescribe an exercise scheme where you are given free or discounted access to a range of leisure facilities for a period of time.

It could be anything from the gym to belly dancing, depending what is available and suitable for you. A referral officer provides you with support, motivation and advice and there are interviews at key points to monitor how you are getting on.

Staying on track
After the initial motivation, maintaining an active lifestyle can have its challenges. Sometimes staying active is hard, both physically and mentally – but there are plenty of rewards.

Stress
This is a normal part of life. Keeping active can help you deal with it. Remember, the natural chemicals that exercise produces can help put a smile on your face.

Feeling low
When you feel down it can be hard to motivate yourself. Ask your friends for some support. Or try a different activity if that helps.

Seasons
When the clocks change for winter that evening cycle might not be so appealing – or safe. Create a winter exercise plan. Try an indoor activity where it’s warm and dry.

Energy
Not all of us leap out of bed full of beans and ready for exercise. Work with your energy highs and lows. Accept that some days it’s best to take a break.

Injury or illness
Always ease back into your exercise routine – take advice from your GP if you need to. If an injury is going to be an on-going problem, switch to a more suitable activity.

Rewards
There are many positive spins offs from being active. Enjoy the ups – give yourself a quiet pat the back or celebrate with others.

Loving life
Nothing can beat that natural high. Take a moment to recognise how you feel more positive about yourself and life.

Sharing
Taking part in an activity with others chance to share what you are thinking and feeling. Achieving a result together can bring real feeling of satisfaction.

Time out
Maybe a half hour brisk walk gives you space to think about things. Clear your head well as build your fitness!

Healthy life

Being active can make you start thinking about your general health.

In the long run
Long term, staying active needs sustained motivation. You’ll find your own way of doing this with time and experience. Don’t see small setbacks as failures, just something to learn from.

Record
Keeping an exercise record can be helpful. As well as noting what you do, record how you feel. It can be a good way to remember the ups. Work out how you’ll avoid repeating the downs.

Goals
Setting goals to measure progress might motivate you.

  • Use a cycle computer – look to improve your average speed.
  • Push in an extra stomach crunch at circuit training.
  • Use a pedometer to measure how far you walk each day.
  • Swim an extra length.

How do you feel when you reach your goal? And what will your new goal be?

If you didn’t reach your goal, work out why. Was it unrealistic? Were there influences outside your control, like bad weather? Or do you need to try just a little bit harder?

Remember, you won’t see improvement every day. Making the regular commitment to doing physical activity is an achievement in itself.

New motivation
If  your original motivation was to complete a challenge, like a fun run or a sponsored mountain climb, set your sights on a new event.

Do you need to look for new people to be active with, like joining a running club or rambling group? Or is there a cause you’d like to fundraise for? There’s always a challenge out there if you’re willing to accept it.

Mental Health Awareness Week 2013: Let's Get Physical

In 2013, we promoted the benefits of physical activity for mental health and wellbeing as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, which ran from 13-19 May.

Read more about Mental Health Awareness Week 2013, including how to access our free downloadable resources.


Podcasts

Audio guides to help you improve your mental health through doing more exercise.

New Year's Resolutions - Exercise
In this podcast, we’ll look at how exercise benefits both your mental health as well as physical health and teach you some techniques to help you create and stick to a programme of regular exercise.

Exercise and Mental Health
This podcast is narrated by Jonty Heaversedge, one of the BBC's Street Doctors. He explains how everyone can look after their mental health using exercise.

Subscribe to our Wellbeing Podcasts on iTunes


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