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How staying active can help your mental health

How staying active can help your mental health How staying active can help your mental health How staying active can help your mental health

Anyone, no matter who they are or how good their life may look, can suffer from poor mental health.

Your mental health can affect your physical health and vice versa, so it’s important to make sure you’re looking after both by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, living a varied and active life, and knowing that you can ask for help for issues relating to both mental and physical health if you need to.

To learn more, Compeed spoke to Karen Preene, an online personal trainer and fitness instructor.

Could you define 'exercise' and 'well-being'?

“Exercise usually refers to a workout that is structured and planned and often forms part of an overall goal such as improving strength or running a 5k for instance. However, we could broaden that definition to include any physical activity that increases our heart rate and gets us moving. Well-being is a little harder to define as I believe it can look different for us all. But ultimately, well-being refers to our overall sense of being which includes happiness, safety, comfort, security, physical, emotional, and mental health etc,” Karen says.

Anything from running to gardening can be considered exercise as long as it gets you moving. Being mindful, taking note of your surroundings and living a varied lifestyle can all contribute to your sense of well-being, which is why going for a walk in a forest, or around your local park or anywhere green can be great for your mental and physical health.

Exercise and mental health, how can one have a positive effect on the other?

The NHS recommends that adults do 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week to stay healthy. This is important for your physical health, but there is also a strong link between physical activity and improved mental health. Aerobic exercises, such as running, swimming, dancing, cycling and walking have been proven to reduce depression and anxiety.

This may be because exercise increases blood circulation in the brain, which can reduce stress, and also increase communication with different parts of the brain, including those playing parts in mood and motivation.

Seeing improvements in your fitness can also improve self-esteem, which has a big effect on better mental health, and it can also increase your overall quality of life, improve your sleep and make you more confident in your body.

“It can be quite hard to get going if you are experiencing symptoms of depression as quite often this will affect our motivation and energy levels. But if we can form a regular habit with exercise/movement, this may actually help to increase our energy and motivation levels. Exercise can also help us to manage symptoms of mental illness such as anxiety. It can act as a distraction of sorts. Exercise can also improve our self-esteem which has a positive impact on our mental health,” Karen says.

What are your exercise tips for beginners? How do you get started on your fitness journey?

“If fitness and mental health are front of mind, but you don’t know where to start, my tip would be, if possible, to try new things and explore what types of exercise you actually enjoy doing. Doing exercise we don’t particularly enjoy can affect our motivation levels. I’d also advise people to just start at 10 minutes of movement. It may not feel like a lot but it removes the barrier of having to find time AND it can feel psychologically more doable than trying to plan for 30 mins plus etc. 10 minutes is better than nothing and quite often, getting started with 10 mins can lead us to continue exercising for longer,” Karen says.

There are a lot of activities you can try, like running, cycling, swimming, walking, rollerblading, tennis, dancing, gardening, and yoga. Don’t feel like you have to stick to something you don’t like – being regularly active is only sustainable if you enjoy what you’re doing. When you find the kind of activity you like, you will find that you look forward to your workout rather than dreading it or trying to put it off.

How can you improve your fitness experience?

“Give yourself permission to do exercise that you enjoy and look forward to for the shortest time that you can manage. If motivation, energy levels, and time are a barrier, meet yourself where you are at. I’d also suggest removing the association of regular exercise with weight loss (which is often the main motivator for exercise) and instead, make a list of all the ways that exercise can be of benefit to you such as managing your mental health, improving your mood, supporting your physical health, improving your body confidence, and skill development. Find ways to connect with exercise outside of the expectation of weight loss,” Karen says.

When people use weight loss as the main motivator for exercise, they can become frustrated if they don’t see quick results and, if there is no other reason for doing the exercise, they may give up. Exercise is really important for weight loss and maintaining a healthy weight, but it’s important to remember that fat loss does not happen overnight. If you are doing strength training, you may actually gain weight on the scales as your muscles grow even if you are losing fat at the same time. The NHS recommends that people trying to lose weight aim to lose 1lb to 2lb a week. Any more is not healthy, is not sustainable and is not actually fat loss, which means the weight will come back very quickly when the unhealthy weight loss regime ends.

How do you stay motivated to exercise long term?

“Make a list of all the ways that exercise and movement benefits you. And tap into that when motivation is low. Also, meet yourself where you’re at; so if you typically go to the gym for an hour to strength train but you’re finding that hard sometimes, swap it up for say a walk in nature, or an online dance class! Be flexible and do something different now and then,” Karen says.

The best thing is there’s no single best exercise for depression. Everything counts. Exercise has so many benefits and can really improve your quality of life. Being active can contribute to a reduction in stress and mental health issues, improved self-esteem, better sleep, and less anxiety and depression. All in all, for body and mind, regular exercise can play a vital role in feeling good on a day-to-day basis.

Sport and physical activity also serve as a great distraction if you’re having a hard time and can help you feel present in the moment, without ruminating on your thoughts or mental health issues. Exercise also naturally releases endorphins, which trigger positive feelings in the body. The natural high you get from exercise is very real and enjoyable, and has the added benefit of also being good for your health!

“Remember that movement is movement; so that includes walking the dog, gardening and housework, and dancing in your kitchen. You don’t have to commit to gym workouts if that’s not something you enjoy,” Karen continues.