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  • Writer's pictureJulie Burn

The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

We're now into the third week of March. Spring is almost here. The weather is warming up, the birds are busy collecting moss and twigs for nest building, and the nights are getting lighter.

At the start of the new year, many of you may have set yourselves some fitness goals - to start running, join the gym, cut down on the alcohol. Usually our goals are for physical gains - to lose a few pounds, lower our cholesterol or blood pressure, and to gain more energy. All worthwhile targets certainly, however, the benefits of regular exercise are more than merely physical.

Exercise can have a profound effect on our mental health too, reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Science has shown how exercise increases dopamine, and endorphins (our happy chemical messengers). When we move our bodies, be it on a brisk walk, a run, or lifting weights in the gym, endorphins are released, which help us feel good. Another mood stabiliser to increase when we exercise is serotonin. Serotonin is produced in our brain and this hormone has a positive effect on how we feel. A lack of serotonin is common in people with depression, and often anti-depressants are prescribed to help regulate these levels. However, knowing the benefits of regular exercise on the 'happy hormones', doesn't it make sense to do all we can to help ourselves, instead of, or indeed alongside, taking medication?

Physical activity can also help us sleep better. Our body temperature increases through exercise and this can calm the mind. Exercising in the morning is also thought to help us sleep longer and helps us enter into deeper sleep cycles, that are beneficial to our health. So try to get outside for a brisk walk or a run in the morning. Sunlight also helps to boost serotonin levels, so double up on your benefits of this mood booster by doing your exercise outside.

As well as providing us with many positive physical benefits, committing to, and sticking with, a regular workout schedule, can also boost our self-esteem and confidence.Taking control of our health and fitness is a wonderful achievement. It can be hard to get out of bed before work to go for a run or to call in the gym for an hour or two after a busy day in the office, so we should be proud of ourselves if we make this happen. Motivation can be hard to come by and if we are waiting around for that perfect moment when we feel fired up for the gym or that 5k race, then we might be waiting a long time. Action = Motivation, so just start somewhere, however small and the momentum will carry you through. I guarantee you won't regret it.

Whilst exercise can be a positive coping strategy for those suffering with mild to moderate depression and anxiety, sometimes we don't feel physically or mentally able to commit to a regular routine of running, cycling or heavy gym workouts. If this is the case, don't worry. The benefits of walking in nature are huge. A slow, restorative walk in the woods or by the sea can boost your mood too. Be mindful, focus on your senses - what can you see? Hear? Smell? Taste? and how do you feel in your body? Use this time to switch off from the usual mental chatter and just be with yourself for a while.

It doesn't matter what form of exercise you choose to do as long as you enjoy it. Once you start to notice the physical and mental health benefits, you will hopefully continue with it and be open to trying new forms of exercise in the future.

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