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Exercise and mental health

Specialist Nurse Adviser at Bupa UK
09 September 2020
If you’re battling the blues or feeling a bit flat and fed up, exercise can feel like the last thing you want to do. But, some regular exercise could really help to lift your mood. Here I talk about how and why exercise can improve your mental health and wellbeing and share stories from people who can tell you more about what works for them.

How does exercise boost your mood?

There is evidence that exercise can be an effective treatment for depression, as well as helping improve the effect of antidepressants, However, the way that exercise boosts your mood isn’t completely clear.

Although we aren’t sure, some research suggests it can help for a few different reasons.

Physical changes

It’s thought that exercising increases the levels of chemicals in your brain, called neurotransmitters and endorphins, that make you feel happy. It’s also been suggested that the raise in your body temperature, that happens when you exercise, may also lift your mood.

Focussing on something else

Exercise might help boost a low mood by distracting you from your thoughts and worries. Being ‘in the moment’ can give you a break from stresses that have happened in your day. It might also help by breaking up your routine.

Improving self esteem

Exercising may also increase your confidence. When you’ve completed a workout,  you’ll often find yourself feeling pleased with what you have accomplished. Exercise may also help improve your sense of self-worth and body image.

How much exercise is enough?

If you’re feeling down you might not have much energy, and the thought of being more active might be daunting. But you should feel better once you start moving. The good news is that doing just 10 minutes of exercise can be enough to make a difference to how you’re feeling. And once you get going you can always build up to doing more.

You may not feel like exercising every day, but it’s best to be active as regularly as you can.

Guidelines for everyone

According to UK government guidelines, each week we should all aim to do:

  • at least 150 minutes of moderate activity, such as cycling or brisk walking
  • or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity, such as running or playing sport
  • or several short sessions of very vigorous activity, such as sprinting up hills
  • as well as two sessions of strength building exercises

Moderate activity causes you to breathe more quickly but you’re still able to talk. During vigorous activity, your breathing is very fast and talking is difficult. Very vigorous activity is only possible for a very short amount of time before needing a rest.

If you haven’t exercised for a while, or have any long-term health problems, speak to your GP. You may need to build more exercise into your life gradually. They may suggest some activities that you can try.

Exercise on prescription

If your low mood continues or affects your daily routine, make an appointment with your GP. In some areas, GPs can prescribe exercise as a treatment for a range of conditions, including depression.

In the UK, guidelines recommend people with depression take part in taking regular physical exercise to help improve mental wellbeing as well as help with getting enough sleep.

What type of exercise works?

I spoke to some of my colleagues to find out what exercise they do and how they feel it benefits their mood.

Gym time is me time

“As a working Mum, I’m constantly running around looking after others, which is tiring and not always rewarding, so having a workout, run or long walk (when I can) is my much-needed ‘me time’ where I focus on feeling good about myself. It does my mind wonders and I’m much more ‘on form’ for the family when I create my own time to exercise.”

A walk in the woods with my four-legged friend

I walk my Labrador, Blue, at least once a day and find I always feel much better afterwards. Not only does a walk contribute to my step count, it makes sure I go out whatever the weather. While it’s tempting to have a duvet day when it’s pouring down with rain, I feel a real sense of accomplishment if I have had some fresh air, and it makes an afternoon on the sofa feel like a reward!

I love being out in nature too; if I’m having a bad day, there is something really soothing about a walk in the woods or across the fields, and it gives me time to think, without my phone or laptop. A long walk with friends is lovely too – especially with a pub lunch at the end of it – and I love finding new places to walk and explore.”

Yin yoga for deep relaxation

“I’ve recently taken up Yin yoga – a restorative type of yoga that focuses on the bones, ligaments and tendons. It involves holding certain floor-based poses for several minutes at a time. It can feel a little bit uncomfortable at first, being in a pose, but I enjoy sitting with it and gradually feeling any tension melting away. I find it deeply relaxing and enjoy having time to go into my internal world. I always finish the class feeling more at peace.”

Fatmata Kamara
Specialist Nurse Adviser at Bupa UK

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