Exercise is the most underused drug for mental health.
I saw a fridge magnet with this statement on once and loved it (I think the other part of the quote is food is the most over-abused substance). We are waking up to the power of exercise and physical movement for combating stress, anxiety and depression, but its hard to overstate how effective it is for alleviating the symptoms of these (real life) conditions. In a podcast episode with Sue Lyster, we talk about how powerful exercise is for mood and she cites it as a game-changer for her (click here to listen).
The power of a brisk walk
One study found that a brisk 10-minute walk increased feelings of energy for up to 2 hours afterwards. That’s some return on investment. Plus, if done daily for three weeks or more, overall energy and mood was lifted. So when we talk about exercise, this starts with brisk walking. Most of us walk, even if not for long, so all you need to do to get these benefits is increase your speed a little. Anther study found that as little as 5 minutes exercise had mood-enhancing effects, and this could be achieved with a short jog, some star jumps, squats, climbing stairs, getting up and down from the floor and so on. TIP: think about intersections. Combine the walk with something else you love such as music, podcasts, nature, animals, being with a friend or just deep breathing.
Trigger those hormones!
Hormones play such an important part in our health, and this is definitely the case for mental health. The key hormones are serotonin (a lack of this is believed to play a part in depression), endorphins and dopamine. Serotonin aids of metabolism as well as the immune system, but it also helps to maintain mood balance. It is believed that as much as 90% of our serotonin resides in the gut, and the rest in the brain – this might be why eating feels so good sometimes, and why some people self-medicate with food to make themselves feel better. Running, biking and yoga have been proven to be beneficial for serotonin production, so I’d recommend trying these first. Endorphins (also called feel-good chemicals) are also generated through (predominantly) cardiovascular exercise, and dopamine can be produced during and after exercise and movement.
Increase your self-esteem and confidence
Trying something new and moving your body directly impacts your self-esteem and self-confidence. This is due to a number of reasons, not least that it feels good to be taking control of your health and happiness, particularly when the benefits are so varied and plentiful. Focus less on the changes you can see in your body, and more on what you can achieve with your body – aesthetics are great but isn’t it more important to learn new skills, enjoy moving your body and focusing on your feelings? Being able to change how you feel by exercising and moving is extraordinarily powerful. Check out my TEDx talk on why fitness is more important than weight for more on this idea.
Boost your brain power
Movement and exercise both help to produce brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that increases production of proteins associated with nerve cell survival and function and is therefore vital for brain health, cognitive function, mental health and longevity. Exercising regularly also promotes neurogenesis, which is the production of new brain cells. If we’re not growing, we’re dying, so this can only be a good thing. Studies have also proved that exercise can improve concentration, memory and mental sharpness and well as reducing the feelings of brain fog.
Change it up
Doing something different or learning a new skill is invigorating and can lead to all the benefits discussed above. Speaking specifically about exercise, changing it up a bit is very effective. When I tried Animal Flow for the first time I felt amazing afterwards largely because it was new and brought variety into my weekly routine. Think about how you can freshen up your exercise routine, and try and intersect it with other health-related benefits like being outside in the fresh air, being with people, being connected to a group or listening to a podcast or music. Doing something is powerful but when you intersect it with something else that you’re passionate about, the results can be extraordinary.
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