November 05, 2021 4 min read

We’ve had a year unlike any other in living memory. A global pandemic, national lockdowns, domestic and international travel restrictions, inevitable economic impacts and the subsequent falloff in social interactions and relationships have had a dramatic impact on mental health.

For many, the consequences have been tragic. Provisional suicide data from the Office of National Statistics show that suicide rates have increased in 2020. Further data from the same source suggests that rates of depressive symptoms had increased from around 9.7% of the population to 19.2%. It’s important to say that this is provisional data, but one thing is clear – the trend is an upward one, which isn’t a good thing.

There’s a way out though. In this article, we’re going to show you how the evidence proves exercise and activity can be used to boost mental health.

Key Points:

  • Exercise and Mental Health
  • How Does Exercise Boost Mental Health
  • Social Aspects
  • Biochemical Aspects
  • Distraction Element
  • 'Green' Therapy Aspect
  • Physical Benefits
  • Where to Start...

In this article, we’re going to show you how the evidence proves exercise and activity can be used to boost mental health. It’s been a tough year, so let us show you how there’s a way to improve mental health via fitness.

Exercise and Mental Health

There has long been a link between exercise and its positive effects on mental health. The old saying of ‘healthy body, healthy mind’ rings true, even if it is largely based on anecdotal evidence. What research has subsequently shown us is that there is a proven positive impact on mental health as a result of exercise.

At a most basic level, the post-exercise euphoria described by many as ‘Runner’s High’ has a known effect on short-term mood, energy levels and feeling of self-esteem. It was previously seen as an anecdotal benefit, perceived by many as an imagined state, but research proves there is a biochemical signature to runner’s high and that it exists in a measurable state.

Some therapists and clinicians have started to use exercise in their practice. By encouraging regular exercise people suffering from mental health issues have noticed improvements that can match (and in some cases, supersede) those associated with medication. This is likely to be down to a combination of activity and the associated brain chemistry improvements, the likelihood of the exercise being a social activity and also a change of scenery. Regardless of the reasons behind the improvement in mental health, the outcome remains the same – exercise is proven to be an effective treatment for mental health issues.

How does Exercise Boost Mental Health?

The answer to this question is a complex and multi-faceted one, but there are certain aspects that we know to be important, ranging from the social to the biochemical. Here’s an outline of the factors we know to be important…

Social Aspect

Although exercise is a powerful tool to improve mental health when this is compounded with social relationships the effects are more powerful. Social interaction and inclusiveness are integral to mental health recovery and exercising with friends are also more likely to result in the exercise habit becoming a regular one, leading to long-term mental health improvement. Joining a club or society makes exercise social and allows you to meet like-minded people with similar interests.

Biochemical Aspects

As we discussed earlier in the article, there’s a marked improvement in brain chemistry post-exercise. This is a fundamental driver in improving mental health because it takes away the tiring psychological ‘effort’ required to change thought processes. The exercise is both a distraction and an automatic process; by moving your body you are automatically changing your brain chemistry.

Distraction Element

Some models of psychological therapy rely on distraction as a technique. Instead of allowing a person to dwell on feelings of negativity, they are encouraged to think more positively. By forcing physical and psychological shift inactivity, this process is much easier. There’s a forced attention shift with exercise and it can be a very powerful weapon against mental health issues.

'Green' Therapy Aspect

There has been a movement towards being in nature as a psychological therapy to relieve anxiety, stress and depression. This can easily be achieved with exercise – running or cycling in the countryside is a perfect example. Simply being outdoors can have a marked improvement on mental health. Combine that with exercise and the results are improved again.

Physical Benefits

This one is almost too obvious to mention, but that exercise has a profound effect on our physical health. When our bodies are fitter and healthier, there is less in the way of ‘obvious’ reasons to feel self-resentment. Those of us with a negative self-image can help to improve these feelings by taking steps to improve our physical condition.

Where to Start…

There’s no ‘right place to start – just begin. Your starting point depends on your level of fitness, what you enjoy, what you have access to etc.

There’s a suggestion that frequency is more important than intensity, so aim to be active 3 or more times per week for 30 minutes or more. This could be as simple as a walk, or as complex as undertaking a training programme for an event – just do something you can cope with!

A few suggestions to make the exercise habit an effective one…

  • Pick something you enjoy.If you love to cycle, do that. If running is your thing, do that. Lift weights, do yoga, climb hills – whatever floats your boat. You’re far more likely to stick to exercise if you do something you enjoy.
  • Make it social. If you’re suffering from mental health challenges, having support in the form of a friend or family member is particularly helpful. It also helps to make exercise a habit, because it becomes a social activity too. Being around others with a great outlook is infectious!
  • Be realistic. If you’ve been struggling, don’t set unrealistic goals that can lead to a sense of failure, exaggerating your mental health issues. Set yourself challenging but achievable targets, especially in the early stages of your recovery. Your first job is to recover, not punish yourself.