THE EXERCISE EFFECT
At a time when caring for your mental health has never been more important, moving your body could be the easiest way to make over your mind.
We all want to look and feel great, but if the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that mental wellbeing can’t be assured. In England, the Centre for Mental Health has predicted that up to ten million people will need mental health support as a direct consequence of Covid-19, while data from the charity Mind shows that more than a half of us said our mental health got worse during lockdown. Experts warn we’re on the brink of a mental health crisis, but there’s one way to protect your mind that you can self-prescribe – exercise.
Exercise has a lot to offer. It improves cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness, while reducing the risk of diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, stroke and even some types of cancer (such as that of the breast and colon). It’s also great for skin health – moving your body boosts blood flow and the delivery of nutrients to the skin, plus some studies even say that exercise changes the amount of collagen in the skin. But crucially, getting active could be a boon to your brain. “Exercise triggers the release of chemicals within the brain, including endorphins, dopamine and serotonin,” explains Holly Balan, personal trainer at F45. “These are often referred to as ‘feel good’ hormones as they help to regulate and boost mood, as well as improve sleep quality, ease stress and relieve pain.”
A LITTLE COUNTS
We should be moving our bodies daily, but the good thing is that your chosen activity needn’t be arduous – research shows that even a brief 10-minute walk could increase your feelings of positivity. Further data reveals that exercise can boost levels of self-esteem, while reducing stress, anxiety and the risk of mental health problems. Indeed, one study published in the Current Sports Medicine Reports journal reveals that regular exercise could decrease the chance of experiencing depression by up to 41 per cent – a substantial amount. “The most important thing is to find a form of exercise you truly enjoy,” advises Balan. “Exercise can be a daunting prospect, especially if you’re unsure where to start, but it can also be an empowering, enjoyable lifestyle choice.”
Where you exercise might matter, and outdoor activity often comes up trumps for mental health. “Humans are designed to be outside,” says Mark Whittle, purpose and performance coach at fl1ght.co.uk. “You get the benefit of enjoying fresh air, and studies show that outdoor exercise lowers blood pressure, which decreases our perceived effort – meaning whatever we are doing feels easier outside than inside.” Indeed, one review in the Environmental Science and Technology Journal found that nearly everyone who exercised outside scored high on measures of self-esteem, enthusiasm, pleasure and vitality, and lower on levels of depression, tension and fatigue, than they did exercising indoors. “Incorporate exercise into your daily life,” adds Balan. “It can be as simple as meeting a friend for a 30-minute walk, doing some gardening, or getting off the bus a few stops early.”
Thinking about reviving a workout regime? Exercise as a form of therapy is now so well recognised that many GPs prescribe it as one of their top treatments for depression, but how much activity should you do to improve your mental health? While general guidelines suggest you clock at least an hour and a half of moderate intensity activity each week (or 30 minutes of movement five times a week) for optimal health, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that people with mild to moderate depression take part in about three sessions a week, lasting for 45 minutes to one hour. However, there’s a tipping point. Working out too hard or too much can lead to overtraining. “Check in with yourself to ensure that you’re getting the most from your training,” suggests Balan. “If you find yourself feeling guilty for missing a fitness class, or you’re training so often that you feel fatigued, you may need to re-evaluate your relationship with exercise.” And remember, taking time for rest is just as important as breaking a sweat.