Exercising can have a phenomenal effect on our mental state through the release of endorphins, balancing of hormones, improvement of sleep and stress management (just to name a few). Whether you’ve been feeling low lately, or your anxiety has had the best of you for a long time, mental health comes in all forms and everyone can benefit from physical activity in keeping a healthy headspace.
Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and can be beneficial in some situations (such as alerting us to dangers to prepare). Anxiety disorders differ from normal feelings of nervousness or anxiousness and involve excessive fear or anxiety.
Depression is a mental health disorder characterised by persistently depressed mood or loss of interest in activities, causing significant impairment in daily life.
Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA): is a neuroendocrine mechanism that mediates the effects of stressors by regulating numerous physiological processes, such as metabolism, immune responses, and the autonomic nervous system
Amygdala generates fear in response to stress
Limbic system controls motivation and mood
Hippocampus plays an important role in memory formation as well as in mood and motivation.
Exercise and Mental Health
Starting with at least 10 - 20 minutes cardio exercise (running, walking, swimming, cycling, gardening and dancing - whatever you enjoy!) most days will help increase blood circulation to the brain which influences the HPA axis and the physiologic reactivity to stress. The HPA axis will communicate with several regions of the brain including the limbic system, hippocampus and the amygdala. Exercise has also proven to alleviate symptoms of self-worth and social withdrawal.
Other benefits of exercise for mental health include:
- Changes the levels of chemicals in the brain (serotonin, stress hormones and endorphins)
- Improves sleep quality
- Improves your sense of control, coping ability and self-esteem
- Distracts you from negative thoughts and provides opportunities to try new experiences.
- It offers an opportunity to socialise and get social support if you exercise with others.
- Increases your energy levels.
- Physical activity can be an outlet for your frustrations.
- Reduce skeletal muscle tension, which helps you feel more relaxed.
What you can do next
- Start small by setting realistic goals that will help you stay motivated
- Do what you enjoy whether that’s a group exercise class at the gym or gardening at home, whatever gets you excited to go!
- Make the time - staying active can actually help you through tough periods
- Set a routine and plan ahead to maintain motivation
- Get a mental health plan from your doctor and start sessions with an Exercise Physiologist for a structured and individualised program with the support of a professional.