People running at night

Exploring the link between exercise and wellbeing

How exercise improves mental well-being

Mental health awareness continues to grow, stigma is being reduced and most people now understand that mental wellbeing is part of overall health and should be valued accordingly.

Mental wellbeing awareness and exercise advocacy are more than just trends. The symbiotic relationship between exercise and mental health is increasingly emphasised by healthcare professionals. With research revealing the profound effects of exercise in reducing stress, anxiety and depression, physical activity is being highlighted as one of the key aspects that benefit and contribute to good mental wellbeing.

Well-being isn’t just about physical health; it’s also about taking care of your mind. However, current levels of good mental health in the UK are worryingly low. The Mental Health Foundation points out that the health and well-being of a country’s citizens is a key indicator of its success, and that much needs to be done to improve the wellbeing of its citizens if the country is to be defined as thriving.

“For good physical and mental health, adults should aim to be physically active every day. Any activity is better than none, and more is better,” say the Chief Medical Officers in their physical activity guidelines. The NHS also says adults should do some form of physical activity every day and recommends exercising once or twice a week, which can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

“You’ve got to do something, even if it’s just walking the dog, keep active and do things, ” said Ian Cramb, a 64 year old who, as well as being a big advocate of exercise, added that an injury years ago didn’t stop him from being active. “I couldn’t do it anymore, but I’m careful and I know it’s important to keep exercising, you need a bit of brain stimulation, you need to get out, different scenery, meet people, have a chat.”

woman looking at her dogs in the park
Kim enjoys walking her dogs. Photo: Maria Amaral

To keep exercise in her routine, Kim Kirk, 55, does a gym class and walks her dogs every day. “I’m getting older, it’s good to keep active,” she said.

She continued: “I also think that it’s good for your mental health, anybody who has a bit of depression or feeling a bit low, do some exercise. It’s really good for you. Sometimes people find excuses, they have busy lives so it’s not the first thing on their to-do list.”

Despite this, Kim believes people nowadays are aware of the relationship between exercise and mental wellbeing.

“I would say that exercise definitely is really important for your overall mental well-being,” she said. “It helps you with anxiety, depression, stress relief, it does make you feel better.”

Physiotherapist Hardik Shah said: “There are lots of other things that it can help you with, enhancing your mood, your confidence, it increases your pain tolerance and there are studies that also suggest that it helps you with immune-related disorders.”

men wearing a suit
Hardik Shah has been a physiotherapist since 2014. Photo: Hardik Shah

If being afraid of injuries is what stops you from exercising, Shah assured: “Exercising at least 150 minutes to 75 minutes a week theoretically helps you with prevention of injuries. Doesn’t have to be intense weight-lifting, but just moving your muscles in the right direction.”

Shah added: “With a positive mindset, you definitely have better recovery chances. There’s definitely a correlation between your mental well-being and your physical well-being.

“Physical exercise is just one of the aspects that helps with mental health, you need to be active, it can be anything, even a laughing or mental exercise.”

Men smiling in a green park
Olive says it is hard to have time to exercise. Photo: Maria Amaral

Why are people less active?

“It’s hard to find time to exercise, but I’m quite active at work, so it compensates,” Lizzi Mope, 27, admitted.

“When I do exercise I feel a little bit better, but I don’t have too much time for it. I don’t think I´m a very active person,” said Csuwas Olive, 36. “I used to do running before my daughter was born. I have some friends, who went to the doctor and they told them to go running, so I think it’s good for mental health to exercise.”

The NHS advises reducing the time you spend sitting and breaking up long periods of inactivity with some activity. It recommends that adults do at least 2 days a week of strengthening activities that use all major muscle groups, 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity each week.

There are many simple strategies and tips that can be used to lead a more active life and meet the physical activity recommendations. The most important are prioritising physical activity, being consistent, getting outdoors, understanding what works for you, breaking exercise into short sessions, staying motivated, using nature as therapy, finding activities you enjoy, using social support and listening to your body.

The multifaceted and deeply intertwined relationship between physical activity and well-being is undeniable, but there still seems to be a lack of awareness of this relationship. Lack of time and not prioritising physical activity seem to be the main reasons people use to justify an inactive lifestyle.

A healthier mindset and overall wellbeing can be achieved by understanding the profound relationship between health and physical activity, and by implementing simple strategies to make physical activity part of everyday life. In the future, the number of active people in the UK will hopefully increase and the relationship between wellbeing and exercise will be widely understood.

Exercise is about much more than shaping the body, it is about health. Experts and active people agree that exercise improves mental wellbeing, helps regulate mood and stress, and helps prevent serious health problems. In a world where mental health is declining, the need for exercise is even more urgent, and it may be one of the best tools we have to improve mental wellbeing.

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