The Effects Of Exercise On Mental Health


How important is physical activity for your mental health?

brain lifting a barbelll

Imagine you’ve signed up to run a 10K charity race, you’ll need to train your body regularly to become fitter in order to complete the race without the risk of injury. The consistent physical training strengthens your heart, lungs, muscles and joints.

The same goes for your brain. In order to strengthen it, you must train it frequently with exercises that stimulate it.

Firstly, let’s look at how your brain works in order to understand it better and learn to manage situations by being aware of your responses.

Your brain is divided into 2 halves – a logical thinking brain and an emotional thinking brain. Your logical brain reacts to situations that are based on facts, your emotional brain responds to situations based on emotion. I like to call this half your ‘chimp’ as the characteristics represent this furry animal very much. Managing the 2 halves can be tricky especially when they conflict each other, so it’s important to know your ‘chimp’ is 5 times stronger than logical brain, so avoid trying to control it and learn to manage it instead. (The Chimp Paradox ~ Prof Steve Peters)

You can recognise which one is taking control of your mind and thoughts by your reactions. For example, your friend comments that you look tired today. Logical brain responds with the factual reasons why you’re tired, maybe you’ve been working too hard and not getting enough sleep for the last few days. Your emotional brain on the other hand chimp responds with aggression like, “is he/she saying I look haggard?” Your chimp can be paranoid too so one of the best ways to exhaust it is with exercise, and one of the best ways to manage it is with meditation.

We know through science and current research that neurotransmitters called endorphins are released when stimulated. Exercise is one of the best stimuli along with laughter and pain, so you can expect to experience ‘runners high’ when you get a u of them after your workout.

What type of exercise is best?

Any form of exercise is good, however, I would recommend finding something that you really enjoy or signing up to do an event to give you a reason to train.

I know for some, gyms can be a daunting place but I encourage you to either book an induction to be shown how to use everything, or do some research on the instructors taking sessions at the club or privately in your local community. Find out their name and be a bit of a Facebook stalker. Don’t be afraid to check out their social media profiles to find out their background.

Alternatively, hire a Personal Trainer or a coach with a good reputation. Again like above, be sure to check them out. Remember that a busy personal trainer isn’t always a good indication that they’re the best. They may just be the best sales person. This way of training can be costly to hire for 1-2-1 sessions but some PT’s are now offering buddy sessions or semi-private personal training for groups of 6-8. However, if you’re investing in your health, regardless of the cost, it may be the best decision you make.

Use apps like Map My Run to connect with friends and set challenges for yourselves. I use this frequently with my clients as it really makes them get off their backside and complete activities. A little bit of friendly competition can help enormously.

HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) the beauty of this popular way of exercising is that it’s short enough to fit in 20-30 minutes a day and is highly effective for results. The intensity is very hard for a short period of time, say 30-40 seconds and immediately followed by a rest of approximately 30 seconds. This type of activity boosts something called, Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) which helps facilitate neural repair and enhances learning and memory. Like most things that occur with age, BDNF declines along with our memory and people with low levels of it suffer more with depression, anxiety, and even schizophrenia.

A recent study performed on stationary bikes found that high intensity interval training had a greater BDNF response than intense continuous exercise. Even though these levels returned to base level minutes after exercise, it was enough to improve cognitive function. Other studies have also shown that low-intensity exercise did not increase BDNF levels at all.

While physical exercise works wonders for mental health, combined with mindfulness and mediation you’re accelerating your brains performance and training it to function better. Try finding a quiet, uncluttered place, where you can focus on your breathing and avoid distractions. Just by following your inhale and exhale from beginning to end will help your concentration and productivity.

I have trained many clients that suffer with various mental health issues and all have insisted regular exercise has definitely been a contributing factor for them managing it better. Exercise is considered one of the most powerful medicines for treating anxiety and depression yet is the most under prescribed.

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