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How regular exercise can help boost your mood

by Sarah Graham
Thursday 23 April 2015
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Ahead of this year's London Marathon, we're thinking about the impact exercise can have on your mental health and wellbeing. Of course, most of us are never going to become marathon runners or elite athletes, but research does show that regular exercise can give your mental wellbeing a real boost. We asked five RSCPP therapists to explain the power of getting fit and active.

"We're all aware of how regular exercise can improve our physical health and wellbeing, helping us sustain a healthy lifestyle and fitness levels. But exercise also promotes a healthy state of mind; off-setting the build-up of adrenalin, anxiety, and the slump of depression," explains Registered Psychotherapist Gregori Savva.

"It allows you to remain in the present moment and improves the quality of your lived experience. During exercise, an elevated heart rate and focused breathing enlivens the body's sensations with oxygen, supplies energy to our muscles, and releases endorphins and serotonin to the brain," he says.

Pleasurable sensations reduce stress levels, helping you to regulate emotions, breathe deeply and relax.

"As muscles are contracted and released, the build-up of tension in your limbs, neck, back and shoulders is dispersed, as well as stretching out knotted muscles. Pleasurable sensations reduce stress levels, helping you to regulate your emotions, breathe deeply and relax." 

For Registered Psychotherapist Fiona Biddle, the evidence is compelling: "According to Adrian Taylor's research 'Physical activity, anxiety and stress', studies show consistently that exercise can reduce anxiety, and single exercise sessions can reduce physiological reactivity to stress," she says.

Aerobic and rhythmic exercise, such as running, swimming or cycling, have been found to have the greatest effect, she explains and, perhaps unsurprisingly, long-term exercise programmes have a greater effect than single sessions.

There are a number of possible reasons why exercise can help reduce anxiety and stress, Fiona explains. "Exercise rids your body of adrenaline, the chemical triggered by the 'fight or flight' reflex, in the same way as fighting or fleeing would do, and so prevents it building up, which can cause physiological and psychological harm," she says.

"The brain also releases endorphins during exercise, the body's 'feel-good' hormone, so exercise can literally give you a high, and it may also result in a eustress, or 'good stress' response, similar to riding rollercoasters, watching horror movies or falling in love," Fiona adds.

The brain releases endorphins, the body's 'feel-good' hormone, during exercise.

In the same way that a hot bath or sauna can make you feel good, Fiona says exercise can have a similar warming effect on the body, and can also provide a distraction or time out from otherwise stressful situations. The feeling of accomplishment you get from achieving something new in your exercise regime - perhaps your fastest ever 5K run, or perfecting a particularly difficult yoga stretch - can also give you a great mental boost and, Fiona adds, "your increased fitness or improved body shape can result in an increase in confidence and feelings of self-worth."

Conversely, Accredited Counsellor Roslyn Byfield points out, "not doing enough physical activity can negatively impact on your mental health, through compromised physical health and also through how you feel about yourself. Being active can give you a sense of mastery, besides awareness of your body feeling toned rather than sluggish."

Lack of physical activity can negatively impact on your mental health.

Of course, that's all very easy to say but can be less easy to put into practice. Many people, particularly those who haven't practised regular exercise for many years, may feel self-conscious and find it difficult to motivate themselves. Besides, when you're struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions, it can be challenging enough simply to get out of bed in the morning - never mind lacing up your trainers and hitting the gym!

If you, like many others, were put off exercise by bad memories of competitive sports at school, Roslyn says "the important thing is to pick something you like, or which appeals - which could be something you never did at school, such as dancing, walking, yoga or cycling - as this contributes to the likelihood of you sticking to it."

If you're intimidated by the very idea of exercise, Registered Psychotherapist Sue Crofton says remember that "exercise doesn't need to be hardcore. It's no use forcing yourself to go to the gym if, for you, it's the seventh circle of hell! Any form of physical exertion will not only keep you fit, but also raise your serotonin levels and help keep low moods at bay, and exercising with others reduces loneliness and isolation."

Exercise doesn't need to be hardcore. Any form of physical exertion will help keep low moods at bay.

She adds: "Often clients might say they are 'too tired' to exercise, but exercise will increase your energy levels, so I always encourage them to find something that they enjoy. If you aren't sure how to start, maybe you could get off the tube or bus one stop early and walk the rest of the way, as an easy introduction. Or finding an exercise buddy can be really motivating; I personally have formed social networks by going regularly to the gym."

Exercising outdoors also comes with plenty of added benefits - particularly as we move into the sunnier months of the year, when getting your daily dose of sunshine can help top up your levels of mood-boosting vitamin D. "Swimming, walking or running in the open air lets you take in sunshine and natural surroundings, stimulating your five senses, creating a natural state of mindfulness and a more buoyant mood," Gregori says.

"As such," he explains, "you're more likely to generate a positive outlook, rather than self-defeating patterns of negative emotion and destructive impulses. Also, by creating awareness of your internal physical cues, you respond better to the needs of your body, generating self-care and compassion."

Although aerobic exercise can have a great impact on your mood, Sue says "don't forget that exercise doesn't have to be gung ho or sweaty - yoga and pilates are wonderful for strength and stability." Indeed, while Sue opts for regular gym sessions, Accredited Counsellor Stathi Anthopoulos is a keen advocate of this more sedate form of exercise.

Exercise doesn't have to be gung ho or sweaty.

"Practising yoga for half an hour every evening can be very efficient in helping you relax, as well as clearing your mind and improving your concentration," he says. "The word 'yoga' has been interpreted to mean 'stillness of mind' or 'union', and it can support you to stay mentally stable in times of stress and anxiety, and to improve the connection between your body, soul, and the world around you."

Whichever activity you find works best for you, Roslyn says: "Physical activity is one of the key principles of mental wellbeing, along with connecting, learning, noticing and giving, so why not give it a go and see how you get on? It's fine - and actually better - to start small, then gradually increase the amount of exercise you do, rather than overdoing it at the outset and risking injury."

Finding support

If you are concerned about the issues raised in this article then you may like to read about finding the right therapist for you. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.

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Updated 23 April 2015