The Emotional Benefits of Exercise

There is no doubt that we live in a hectic world. Many of us have extremely busy lives, juggling work with family commitments and too often, the result of that is stress and exhaustion.

Sometimes then, it seems counterproductive to hear suggestions that we should increase our physical activity, as it can sometimes seem that we simply haven’t got either the time or the energy! However, physical activity and exercise has been shown to have a very positive influence on emotional well-being … as well as obviously enhancing our physical health.

How does exercise enhance our mental health?

There are many studies which show that the benefits include:

  • Better quality sleep, which can help you wake up feeling more refreshed and energetic
  • The release of endorphins, those feel-good hormones which lift your mood and give you more energy
  • Increased stress management. Physical activity helps you to focus on something other than your worries and can be a great, healthy distraction technique.
  • Better self-esteem – exercise can help you to feel more confident in your own body. It also helps to foster a sense of achievement.
  • A reduced risk of depression.
  • More opportunities for social connections if you engage in group activities.
  • Team activities also engender camaraderie and a sense of shared goals, which has a very positive effect on how we view ourselves.

So how do you go about increasing your levels of physical activity?

Make yourself more aware first of what you really should be doing in terms of physical activity. The NHS, for example, suggests the following levels of exercise, for adults of between 19 and 64:

  • At least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (such as cycling or brisk walking) every week and strength exercises on 2 or more days per week that work all the major muscles
  • Alternatively, 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity such as running or a game of tennis every week and strength exercises on 2 or more days, as above
  • Or, a mix of moderate and vigorous aerobic activity every week – for example, 2 X 30 min runs plus 30 mins of brisk walking equates to 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity and strength exercises, as above

Obviously these are only guidelines and may need to be adapted depending on your general fitness and any specific health issues you may have.

If you don’t really do much exercise currently, a good place to start is to think about what you do at the moment. If you regularly walk your dog, for example, perhaps you could increase the duration of the walk. Similarly, if you drive to your office every day, perhaps you could start to cycle instead. Even simpler, you could take the stairs instead of always using the lift or escalator. Even small steps like these can make a significant difference to your activity levels. Once you have raised your general levels of fitness, you could start to add another activity or a new sport or exercise class.

Try to choose something which is not only good for you physically but you actually enjoy as well. It’s really difficult to stay motivated to exercise if you don’t enjoy it. Try to think outside the box – exercise is not limited to the gym, for example, and many people exercise doing something they love, such as dancing or hiking. These can be great ways to socialise and meet people and exercise is just one of the many benefits they bring. If you want a fitness challenge, then programmes such as Couch to 5K can be brilliant as they set out a specific model of how to reach each step towards your goal. This is a running plan for absolute beginners and it was developed by new runner, Josh Clark, who wanted to see his 50-something mum get off the couch and start running too. As the name suggests, the plan involves 3 runs a week, from complete novice to being able to run for 5 km. It starts with a mix of running and walking to gradually build up your fitness and stamina, and it really is an easy way to increase your fitness in an accessible and relatively cheap way, since all you really need are running shoes.

There are so many simple ways to start getting fitter – and the benefits are huge, both for your physical and mental health.