Exercise & Mental health

Those that are closest to me know that I have a love affair with spinning.

There’s something about sitting on a stationary bike in the dark with music blaring through the speakers, thighs burning as I try to “pedal to the beat” that has had me hooked since 2014. Like some people, I originally approached fitness as a sure fire way to get a toned stomach and a snatched waistline. And whilst I am still on that mission (sigh), it is no longer my main aim.

The reason I have formed this love for spinning (and the occasional penchant for Body Pump) is because of how I feel after those intense 45-60 minutes. Physical activity has been shown to have a positive impact on our mood – There have been times where I have been so hyper because of all the endorphins coursing through my body that my nearest and dearest don’t know what to do with me. There have also been times where I have been moved to tears because the instructor has said some words of encouragement that have really resonated with something I have been going through outside of the room and sweating it out was the only way I could burn through my stress.

Whilst spinning may not be your idea of fun (although message me if it is), there are some really good reasons why taking up a physical activity can improve your mental wellbeing:

Dealing with Stress

Physical activity can release cortisol which helps us manage stress. It can help you stay present and focussed on the task at hand which will take focus away from ruminating thoughts. You may not be able to vocalise what you’re going through and exercise is a good way to channel your energy and frustrations in a productive way.

Mood Booster & Self-Esteem

Feeling good (or in my case, hyperactive) is one of the short-term effects of exercise as the ‘feel-good’ hormones puts our mind in a more positive state.  In the long-term, exercise makes us feel good about our physical self – our abilities and physique.  Overall, exercise can give us a sense of accomplishment that boosts our confidence.

Support with Depression & Anxiety

Research has shown that physical activity can be used to effectively treat depression and reduce anxiety levels.  When we exercise, the brain releases endorphins as well as sertonin and dopamine which are the same chemicals that form part of anti-dressants. Exercise can be used as a positive coping strategy when times are hard and it doesn’t have the same stigma attached to some people compared to accessing therapy or anti-depressants. GPs nationwide now prescribe exercise as a treatment for depression, among other conditions, and The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that those suffering from mild to moderate depression take part in three activity sessions ranging from 45 minutes to an hour.

Where to start and overcoming barriers

Mustering up enthusiasm or finding time to workout is sometimes easier said than done. And if you’re struggling with your mental health, exercise may not be on your priority list. Then there might be the anxiety of not being fit or flexible enough. There have been times when I’ve criticised my own performance in a class scorning a classmate that can effortlessly bend into all shapes in yoga. All this does is take focus away from my own journey and decrease my motivation. Exercise looks and feels different for everyone. Starting small will make your goals more achievable and that first activity less intimidating. Every small step you take towards your health goals is valid and a step in the right direction.

Exercising with a companion can also help to reduce anxiety about how your body looks to others, and may be particularly helpful during the first few exercise sessions. Alternatively, group exercise classes can give you a sense of community and belonging – especially when you notice that you weren’t the only one that missed a step in Zumba class.

Going to the gym or trying out a new class can be quite overwhelming for some people. If you don’t feel as if you can leave your house, there are plenty of fitness videos online that you can do at home. Apps like Nike Training club or Aflete have really good home workout plans and Youtube has been my go-to for yoga videos.

If your mental health is a significant barrier to exercising, look into activities specifically aimed at people with mental health problems. Some sports and leisure providers have sessions for people with mental health problems and Mind has more information of how to access them – contact your local Mind

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