Five exercises for your mental health

Specialist Nurse Adviser at Bupa UK
12 February 2019

It’s well known that being active plays an important role in looking after both your body and mind. But while the effects of different types of exercise on your physical health have been well researched, good quality advice on which exercises to do for your mental health is harder to come by. We know that doing aerobic exercise can help to take care of your heart and lungs, while weight training can help to keep your bones and muscles strong. But is one type of exercise better at taking care of your mental health than another? We investigate.

A man is stretching outdoors

How does exercise improve your mental health?

How exactly exercise boosts your mood and benefits your mental health isn’t completely clear. But it’s thought to be a combination of psychological, neurophysiological and hormonal changes that happen in your body when you exercise. What we do know is that just 10 minutes of physical activity can have benefits for your health. It’s thought that exercise can help you to be present, take time out for yourself, boost your confidence, reduce your stress levels, help you to feel more relaxed, improve your body image and feel a sense of achievement. To find out more, take a look at our article on how exercise can improve your mood.

Here we take a look at five different exercises that seem to have a positive impact on mental health.

Dancing

Older people dancing


It’s one of the main things people choose to do on a Saturday night – go out dancing! Wherever you do it; around your handbag on the dance floor, in your living room, or at a class, here are some of the reasons why it makes you feel good...

Some research has shown that dancing with a partner can improve your self-confidence. Another study looked at all the different motivations for why people like to dance socially, including reasons like improving fitness and self-esteem, building social connections and as a form of escapism. In the study, enhancing mood was the clear winner, followed by building self-confidence.

But it’s not just the physical movement that makes dancing so popular – it’s the music too and this might be what gives dancing the edge when it comes to generating a happy mood. Think about your favourite song – during the lead up to that great sing-along chorus, your emotions become heightened and this, combined with your anticipation, releases dopamine – a feel good hormone – into your brain. That’s why music gives you goose bumps. Combine this with the mood-boosting effects of exercise and you’re onto a winner.

Yoga

Women are doing yoga

Yoga is a mind and body practice that involves movement, breathing and meditation. This unique combination has positive effects on both your body and mind, resulting in a sense of tranquillity, relaxation and calm. It does this by shifting the balance from one part of your nervous system (your sympathetic nervous system) that activates the fight or flight response, to the part that restores and relaxes (your parasympathetic nervous system).

Yoga suppresses the areas of your brain that are responsible for fear and aggression and instead stimulates parts of your brain that generate feelings of bliss and wellbeing. One of the great things about yoga is that it slows things down, lowering both your heart rate and blood pressure. If you’re keen to give it a go, you can read more in our article about the different types of yoga.

Walking in nature

A man and a woman are walking outdoors


Walking is gentle on your body and a great way to explore your local area and be social too. According to research, a 90-minute walk in nature can help you ‘let things go’ and stop worrying and ruminating (dwelling on things). The key thing here is that your walk has to be in natural surroundings – a field or woodland for example – an urban environment won’t have the same effect.

Another study found that 50 minutes out walking in nature can decrease feelings of anxiety. It’s suggested that we have a close connection with nature that we associate with safety (especially places that have lots of trees). Another study found that walking in nature with a group had a positive effect on mood too. So whether you prefer to go for a stroll on your own or with others, research suggests that both are good for your mood and mental wellbeing.

Swimming

A lady is swimming in the pool


Whether it’s dipping your toes in a paddling pool or deep sea diving, there’s something very therapeutic about being in water. Not only does your body release happy hormones when you swim, but some research has also suggested that swimming could reduce stress. If you enjoy swimming at the pool, heading to your local baths can also be a great way to socialise and reduce loneliness. If you prefer a dip in the ocean on the other hand, some research suggests that being in the great outdoors could also benefit your mental wellbeing. What’s more, swimming is suitable for all ages and can also be a good form of physical exercise if you have an injury or ailment like back pain or osteoarthritis. Read our article on the benefits of swimming to find out more.

Resistance exercise

A man lifting weights


Sometimes called weight training or strength training, resistance exercise means using your muscles to move a force greater than normal for your body. Some research has shown that doing resistance exercise may help to reduce anxiety and depression and increase your self-esteem. It’s thought that you don’t necessarily need to lift the heaviest weight you can to feel the benefits either. But instead, lifting a low-to-moderate intensity weight may help with reducing anxiety. It’s also suggested that the longer you practise weight training for (rather than just a one-off session), the more benefits it may have.

Why exactly resistance exercise may reduce anxiety in the body isn’t completely clear and more research is needed to be sure. So we spoke to Bupa’s MSK Clinical Lead, Jon Edmondson to find out his thoughts:

“Not only can weight training help to build strength and look after your bones and muscles, but many people find it therapeutic too. When you’re lifting weights, there are a number of factors that will contribute to wellbeing; an altered environmental focus such as thinking about your technique or counting how many repetitions and sets you’ve done, an improved body image or simply social interaction. Any type of exercise helps you take time out, switch off from the stresses of everyday life and focus on the task in hand.

There are lots of ways you can do resistance exercise. Generally people think of free weights like kettlebells or using the static weight machines typically found in a gym. You could even buy a small set of dumbbells to use at home or improvise by using heavier objects you can find around the house such as a tin of beans or large bottle of water.

Or how about using your own bodyweight? There are lots of ‘Calisthenics” exercises that you can do without any additional equipment, such as squats, floor-based back exercises or press-ups.

If you’re new to weight training, it’s always better to first speak to a qualified fitness professional who can show you how to perform the exercises and use weights safely to get the most from your training”.

Final thoughts

We can’t say for sure that these exercises will ignite the emotions that we’ve discussed above. That’s because scientifically it’s difficult to prove and it’s a relatively new area of research, so there’s still more work to do. What’s more, everyone is individual and may respond differently. But what is clear is that moving your body in a way that feels good for you can help to lift your mood and look after both your physical and mental wellbeing. So, whether you enjoy sparring in the boxing ring, rock climbing at your local recreation centre or catching waves along the coast, pick something you enjoy and get moving whenever you can.




Even healthy people become unwell sometimes. Health insurance can help you get prompt access to the treatment and support you need to help you get back on the road to recovery. Learn more with our useful guide to understanding health insurance.

Fatmata Kamara
Specialist Nurse Adviser at Bupa UK

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