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  • Claire Grainger

How moving your body can boost your mind

It has been proven, time and time again, that regular exercise relieves stress, helps us sleep better and boosts our mood. So, when we’re depressed or anxious, why don’t we all just get out and exercise? Well, as you can imagine, it’s not that simple.

So let's start with a whistle stop tour of the mental health benefits of exercise

Exercise and anxiety

Exercise is a natural and effective anti-anxiety treatment. It relieves tension and stress, boosts physical and mental energy, and enhances well-being through the release of endorphins. When you run, notice the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, for example, or the rhythm of your breathing, or the feeling of the wind on your skin. By adding mindfulness to your exercise session—focusing on your body and how it feels as you exercise—you may be able to interrupt the flow of worries running through your head.

Exercise and depression

Studies show that exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as medication. This is because exercise promotes changes in the brain, including neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being. It also releases endorphins, powerful chemicals in your brain to make you feel good.

Exercise and stress

When you are stressed your muscles tense, especially in your face, neck and shoulders. This can lead to back or neck pain and painful headaches. You may feel a tightness in your chest, a pounding pulse, or muscle cramps. As well as releasing endorphins in the brain, physical activity helps to relax the muscles and relieve tension in the body. Since the body and mind are so closely linked, when your body feels better so, too, will your mind.

Starting exercising when you have no motivation

But here's the problem. Depression and anxiety can leave us feeling trapped in a catch-22 situation. We want to exercise, but we don’t feel able to. We know that exercise will make us feel better. But if depression has robbed us of the energy and motivation we need to work out, or social anxiety means we can’t bear the thought of being seen at an exercise class or running through the park, what can we do?

Start small – and we mean small.

It’s incredible how a small amount of activity can impact you right from the start. Set achievable goals and build up from there. If depression or anxiety has you feeling tired and unmotivated, start with a 5 minute walk. Or ten minutes in the garden. If you don’t feel ready to go out, then why not try walking up and down the stairs five times or dancing to some music? Washing the car? Any activity that gets you moving counts.

The differences will you see immediately from exercise

It’s a bit like magic. Trust us. As you move you will start to feel a little bit better. We’re not promising miracles. But, bit-by-bit, you’ll start to feel like you’re taking control of your well-being. And that can be a powerful motivator. You may even feel energised enough to exercise more energetically. Walking further, breaking into a run, taking a bike ride. The key is to commit to some activity—however little—most days. As exercising becomes habit, you can slowly add extra minutes or try different activities.

The differences you'll see over time

  • Sharper memory and thinking The endorphins that are released when you exercise also help you concentrate and feel mentally sharp.

  • Higher self-esteem When exercise becomes habit, it boosts your sense of self-worth. The sense of achievement at the end of a gym session, or after swimming 20 lengths can help you to feel more strong and powerful. You may also feel better about your appearance.

  • Better sleep Even short bursts of exercise in the morning or afternoon can help regulate your sleep patterns. If you prefer to exercise at night, relaxing exercises such as yoga or gentle stretching can help relax you before you head to bed.

  • More energy Increasing your heart rate several times a week will give you more get-up- and-go. It seems backwards, but trust us, it works.

Mental health benefits are the main reason people keep exercising

We all know that over time exercise can help you lose weight, feel fitter - even add years to your life. But this is not what motivates most people to stay active.

In fact, the physical benefits of exercise are rarely the reason given by people who exercise regularly. Most will tell you that they feel more energetic throughout the day, sleep better at night and feel more relaxed and positive about themselves and their lives.

Now we’re not going to pretend that it is easy – and everyone has to start when they are ready. But done right, it can be life changing. So why not give it a try?

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