Exercise and mental health - two peas in a happy pod!

31 Aug 2023

Many of us know that regular exercise and wellbeing are closely linked. When we exercise, we generally feel quite good after – and that’s largely down to endorphins – the chemical released from our body after we exercise. These endorphins interact with the receptors in our brain that reduce our perception of pain, help reduce stress, and can help stave off feelings of anxiety and depression.

And if you’re not sleeping well at night, regular physical activity promotes better sleep by helping you fall asleep faster and get a deeper sleep.

Researchers don’t completely understand how physical activity improves sleep. It’s thought that endorphins can act as a sedative. However, moderate aerobic exercise increases the amount of slow-wave sleep you get (deep sleep), where the brain and body have a chance to rejuvenate.

But that’s not all. Numerous studies have highlighted regular exercise's benefits on mental health, mental illness, and emotional wellbeing. Exercise has even been shown to be a viable intervention for treatment-resistant depression.

Many studies have also suggested that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory are larger in volume in people who exercise than in people who don't.

According to Harvard Medical School, exercise boosts your memory and thinking skills. It acts by stimulating physiological changes such as reductions in insulin resistance and inflammation and encouraging the production of growth factors — chemicals that affect the growth of new blood vessels in the brain and even the abundance, survival, and overall health of new brain cells.

And aside from the mental and emotional health benefits of exercise, there are other benefits we mostly know about, such as heart health.

Regular physical activity strengthens your heart muscle and improves your heart's ability to pump blood to your lungs and throughout your body. As a result, more blood flows to your muscles, and oxygen levels in your blood rise.

Capillaries, your body's tiny blood vessels, also widen. This allows them to deliver more oxygen to your body and carry away waste products.

Muscle mass and strength can reduce as we age, so it's important to keep them healthy at any age.

For older adults, doing a variety of physical activities improves physical function and decreases the risk of falls or injury from a fall.

Resistance exercise effectively improves strength among older adults and prevents generalised muscle weakness associated with ageing, particularly with higher-intensity training.

Regular physical activity can also reduce pain and improve function and mood for adults with arthritis, and staying active and mobile can help with long-term pain by reducing muscle stiffness and improving wellbeing.

And if a boost of energy is what you need, exercise is here to help with that, as it improves muscle endurance and strength by delivering oxygen and nutrients to your tissues.

It helps your cardiovascular system work more efficiently, and you have more energy when your heart and lung health improve.

Exercise stimulates your body to produce more mitochondria (mitochondria create fuel out of glucose from food and oxygen from the air when we breathe) inside your muscle cells. Having more mitochondria increases your body's energy supply.

Keep in mind that a regular exercise programme with all its benefits also requires adequate rest.

It’s important to include rest days to allow your body to recover, strengthen and adapt.

An easy way to structure your week is to alternate between strength training and cardio, with a rest day once or twice a week, depending on your fitness level. For example, your rest days may be midweek and the other on the weekend.

A rest day can be an active day that incorporates gentle exercises such as walking or yoga.