The Real Impact of Exercise on Mental Health

Health has been at the forefront of everyone’s minds over the past year, with the impact of coronavirus dominating headlines across the world. However it isn’t just physical health that has been discussed, mental health has had its time in the spotlight too.

The way we think, feel and view everyday situations is all connected to our mental health. Naturally the huge shift in our daily lives due to the pandemic has unsurprisingly had an impact on our mental health and we’re slowly starting to see more people recognise that.

According to the charity Mind, 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England, and 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (like anxiety and depression) in any given week.*

Talking about mental health can be difficult and people are often crippled by the fear of sharing with others what they might be experiencing.

But there are some things we can implement to take care of ourselves a little more such as getting out in the fresh air, spending time away from our screens and eating a healthy and varied diet.

Everyone has mental health – the emotional, physical, psychological and neurological effects of stimulating the mind are widespread and mental activity is essentially anything that stimulates, activates or enriches the mind.

However, what exactly are the scientific reasons behind this and what happens inside our bodies when we take part in exercise?

Let's take a 20-minute HIIT workout as an example.

When you start a HIIT session, by two minutes your temperature will be rising. In order to keep going for the remaining eight minutes, your muscles need energy, so your body will start to burn calories from the food you've eaten. A series of chemical reactions take place and you start to produce heat.

At minute five your heart is beating faster to pump blood to your muscles (mountain climbers are a killer), your heart rate has increased, your blood flow has increased and your core temperature has increased. Say hello to mental stimulation!

By minute ten you're hot, you're sweaty, you're shouting at the TV because you've had enough but what's actually happening within your brain at this point is the euphoric release of endorphins.

Endorphins are neurotransmitters, meaning they carry signals and messages across the brain which then interact with the receptors to reduce your perception of pain (win-win). Endorphins also trigger a feeling of happiness within your body, making you feel great and lifting your overall mood.

By minute 15 your brain function will start to improve. Increasing your heart rate improves blood flow to the brain, which helps it immediately function better. Studies have found that exercising increases the size of the hippocampus, which is associated with memory and learning and, even better, this helps reduce the likelihood of you developing Dementia or Alzheimer's in later life.

The impact of mental health on exercise is astounding. However, what's even more fulfilling is that YOU have the ability to start making these steps to improve your mental health and become the best version of yourself.

A study conducted in 2014** analysed the effects of a single session of resistance training on mental health, focusing particularly on anxiety. It showed that increasing your heart rate by 45% during a 20 minute resistance training session went on to alleviate symptoms and side effects of anxiety for up to two hours once the session had finished.

The study also showed that persistent resistance training had a positive effect on general anxiety disorders, alleviating the likelihood of panic attacks and irrational fears.

Exercise in any shape or form will help you on that road to improving your mental health. Incremental goal setting is a brilliant step to help you stay on track with your exercise plans, but remember, set yourself up for success and you will get there.

Map out small, achievable and realistic goals that you can hit and watch how your mindset slowly starts to shift. Why not push for an extra 500 steps a day, you can even do this by pacing the kitchen while you wait for the kettle to boil.

The Department of Health recommends that adults should aim to be active daily and complete 30 minutes of moderate to high-level activity at least five times a week. For some that may feel like a long way off, for others you may already be there.

However, no matter what stage you are at within your exercise regime, it’s important to remember that good physical health will lead to good mental health which will empower you in your work life, home life and those around you.



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