The mental health benefits of exercise

It is widely known that exercise is beneficial for cardiovascular health, can help you live longer and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, cancer, dementia, Parkinson’s, stroke and diabetes. A recent major study has also found that exercising regularly is associated with improved mental health.

The study published in the Lancet Psychiatry Journal and consisting of 1.2 million US adults found that respondents who exercised reported 1.5 fewer days of poor mental health per month than those who did not.

It found that team sports, cycling, aerobic and gym exercise had the strongest associations with improving mental health.

The best impact was said to be from exercising 45 minutes, three to five times a week, with respondents in that category having better mental health than those who exercised less or more each week. Indeed, over 90 minutes a day or more 23 days a month or more could make mental health worse, highlighting the need to strike the right balance and not overdo it.

The researches noted that those doing extreme amounts of exercise might have obsessive characteristics, thus being potentially at a higher risk of poor mental health.

As long as you find the right balance for you, there are several ways in which exercise can benefit your mental health.

It pumps blood to the brain, helping you think more clearly and increases the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory.
Additionally, exercise increases the connections between the nerve cells in the brain, also improving memory and helps protect your brain against injury and disease.
Not only this, it makes you feel good because it releases endorphins and serotonin that improve your mood.

It can also provide a connection to others if you take part in group activities, or fitness classes, helping to reduce any feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Certain studies have also found that exercise can improve sleep quality.

Recently, after months and months of getting virtually no exercise, I have seen my own benefits regarding mental and physical health by doing something that seemed an impossible ask to begin with.

This week I completed the One You Couch To 5K programme. Having that target over the past couple of months helped my mental health because it gave me something to focus on and a real sense of achievement.

I used to look at runners perplexed, and mesmerised by the sheer motivation they seemed to exude and thinking “You’ll never catch me doing that!”.

When I first started I was only able to run a couple of minutes before feeling the need to stop, whereas now I can comfortably keep going for half an hour. It made me realise that I can complete a goal if I put my mind to it. It was as much about mindfulness and self-belief as it was physical ability.

It is a 9-week programme that gradually builds you up to running for half an hour. It encourages you to complete a run three times a week. I would highly recommend it if you’d like to get into running. A word of caution, don’t be disappointed if you don’t hit 5k in half an hour by the end of the programme. My experience and that of around 90% of users in a poll was that we did not reach 5k by graduation; the importance is the fitness built and not the distance.

I’d love to hear from you about the types of exercise you do and how it helps you, or if you have decided to try out the programme mentioned above. Please feel welcome to leave your comments in the space below.

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