How exercise can improve our mental wellbeing

We all know the positive impact exercise can have on our physical wellbeing but how does it benefit us mentally? Lauren Drinkwater explains, and helps you get started if you’re new to the fitness game…


Exercise is good for our bodies. We know this because we’re constantly being told of the countless benefits by fitness or health professionals: increased muscle tone, balance, metabolism and stamina, reduced risk of injuries, cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses, stronger bones, better ability to carry out everyday tasks, lower blood pressure, a longer life span. 
The list is long.


But what effect does keeping fit have on our minds and mental health? We know it improves brain and memory function but what is increasingly interesting is the proven research on the reduced feelings of anxiety and depression.

On a personal level, one of the reasons I pursued a career in physical fitness was because I found it an emotional outlet for me and it often helped me to find calm in the chaos. My hope was to be able to help others discover that feeling of inner peace, too.

With mental health becoming more openly talked about, it 
comes as no surprise that non-medicated ways of either treating 
or preventing mental illness are being looked at in greater detail. 
So, let’s delve into some of the all-important research…

Can exercise improve mood?

Studies have shown that exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication minus the side effects.

A recent study carried out by Harvard T. H Chan with the School of Public Health found that running for 15mins a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%. Research also showed that maintaining a regular exercise routine can prevent relapsing.

Physical training is known to bring about changes in the brain such as neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being.

It also releases endorphins, which are powerful chemicals in the brain that lift your spirits and make you feel good.

It can also serve as some much needed ‘me time’, helping you to break out of any negative thought cycles that could lead to anxiety 
and depression.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Postpartum depression

As a postnatal personal trainer, mum and baby fitness instructor, and a mum of two myself, I know first-hand that the lack of sleep, anxiety of being a mother to a newborn, the isolation and loneliness, and the loss of a sense of self can all take its toll on a mother’s mental health. 

Postnatal depression can come in various forms and very often will be suffered in silence as mothers are left with a sense of shame that they’re not feeling the way the world is telling them they should feel. 

I remember when I was finishing up work for maternity leave with my youngest and received a card from a class member. Not a ‘you’re having a baby’ card, but a ‘thank you’ card, telling me that my classes had helped her get through a really difficult period in her life. 

She’d been suffering from postnatal depression and hadn’t exercised in 18 months prior to starting up with me and eventually doing three of my classes a week. Not only had they helped her to establish a routine, but the classes also enabled her to meet other mums and feel fitter, stronger and better about herself.

Shockingly, postnatal depression affects more than 1 in 10 women within a year of giving birth, and some even experience it throughout their pregnancy as well.

Of course, many mothers have experienced the typical baby blues, which can last for the first two weeks or so, but we may be unaware of the grasp that the full-blown condition can have on mothers and how consuming and debilitating living with the condition can be. 

I am grateful that this particular mum had the bravery to open up about her inner battle, as I know this is sadly not the case for many. It serves as a reminder that you don’t always know what’s lying beneath the surface and to always be kind and supportive of others. 

You may never know the positive impact you might be having on another just by being there, whether that’s offering your support or simply by having a cheery and upbeat attitude to raise a smile.

Be mindful when exercising 

One interesting tip I found was to pay attention while you’re exercising rather than zoning 
out: “Try to 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.”

This mindfulness will allow you to focus on the body and how it feels during exercise, leading to improved technique, physical condition, and preventing any worries from the outside world creeping into your exercise time.

Researchers have also found that people felt more content, more awake and calmer after periods of physical activity compared to sedentary activities, such as reading a book or watching the television.

Interestingly, when the mood was initially low among those trialled prior to undertaking exercise, the effect was found to be the greatest.

And looking at different types and intensities of activity, it was the low-intensity, aerobic exercise (30-35mins, 3-5 days a week over the course of 10-12 weeks), which was found to have the greatest impact on improving mood, enthusiasm and alertness.

Exercise to lower stress levels 

Fitness has also proven to be a 
great contributor to stress relief. Research on employed adults found that highly active individuals tended to have lower stress rates than the less active ones. It also may also help to treat clinical anxiety, 
being prescribed either combined with medication and/or psychological therapy.

And lastly, physical activity has been shown to have a profound and positive influence on our self-esteem, how we feel about ourselves and rate our own self-worth.

The great thing about exercise is its accessibility to all. It can be very low cost and empowering to individuals who can at times feel 
out of control with the world 
around them.

So in short, it’s a win-win for our overall health 
and wellbeing!

Top tips to get started with exercise

The Department of Health recommends that adults should aim to be active daily and complete 2.5hrs of moderate-intensity activity over a week – the equivalent of 30mins five times a week. It may seem overwhelming at first but everyone has to start from somewhere, so don’t make that first step a daunting prospect.

  1. First of all, find something you enjoy. Exercise doesn’t have to be limited. Any kind of movement is good for the soul.
  2. Establish a routine that works for you. You will have a greater chance of sticking to it if it fits in easily around your schedule.
  3. Make it alone time or social time. It may be that you’re seeking solitude or the togetherness that comes from working out in a group. Either one can lift the spirits.
  4. Find the right environment. For example, if you’re feeling self-conscious, a female-only gym or a larger outdoor group might help you to overcome that barrier. 
  5. Work at a pace that suits you. Don’t feel pressured to exercise to exhaustion if that’s not what you want to achieve. 
  6. Make it practical. Whether that’s fitting in the right amount of time or choosing an affordable option, make sure it’s not adding any unnecessary stress to your life.
  7. Start slow and steady and set achievable goals. Remember these are your goals, not someone else’s, so make them motivating for you – they can be as big or small as you like.
  8. Get out and about when you can. Even if it’s just a daily lunchtime walk, research suggests that doing physical activity in an outdoor, ‘green’ environment has greater positive effects on wellbeing than indoors.


Top image credit: Getty Images