Love it or Hate it? Staying Sane with Exercise

Exercise is a part of many people’s lives for different reasons; for some, exercise is an obligatory chore to fit in, for others it features as a key hobby which other things revolve around. For some, exercise is about burning calories or staying healthy. For others, exercise can provide a focus; a goal or a challenge to work towards. We know exercise provides all sorts of health benefits for our bodies. It reduces our risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer. It burns fat, strengthens muscles and develops resilience. But what about our mental health? Strangely we often think of this as something separate. But inevitably our minds and our bodies are linked. Research now highlights the significant and enduring benefits of exercise on our emotional well-being and mental health. So what does exercise do for you?

Exercise of all varieties can provide an immediate endorphin boost which raises our energy levels and increases our mood. You might be able to think of a time when exercise has cleared the cobwebs away, helped your mind work through a problem or slot things back into perspective. For many exercise is a much needed stress-reliever, reducing tension and achieving a sense of calm. It can provide a way of breaking up the day, either as part of an early morning routine before embarking on the day, or as a way of drawing a line under a stressful day at the office. This in itself can provide more of a sense of balance in a busy and demanding lifestyle. Research has shown that responsiveness or sensitivity to stress can be moderated by physical activity. In other words, we can actively work to build our resilience up to ensure inevitable stress has less of an impact.

Exercise is increasingly being recognised as an antidote to many common mental health problems including anxiety and depression. By boosting our activity levels, we are also boosting our levels of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine; neurotransmitters which impact on mood, energy levels, attention and concentration, motivation, arousal and impulse control. A chemical imbalance in these neurotransmitters is associated with a variety of psychiatric conditions, with many anti-depressant medications working to increase concentrations of these for therapeutic effect. Exercise has also been shown to have a positive impact on things like sleep, alertness and memory. Recent studies have highlighted the promising impact of exercise on cognitive functioning and ADHD symptoms in children.

For those who struggle with physical symptoms of anxiety or panic attacks, exercise can provide a brilliant source of exposure therapy. By gradually exposing people to the experience of increased heart rate, breathing and body temperature, they can be supported to start associating these physiological sensations with something other than fear and danger.

From a more psychological perspective, exercise can support a sense of purpose and achievement. It can provide a boost to self-esteem, body image and confidence. For many, exercise is also a very social activity, thereby providing the benefits of being around others, socialising and having fun. Importantly, it can be incredibly helpful in breaking negative cycles of ruminative thought and supporting us to regain perspective when anxious or stressed. Exercise can be a very mindful activity, shifting our focus to our bodies and the here-and-now experience of physical exertion. In this sense, exercise provides a pro-active boost of resilience as well as a way of regularly restoring a sense of balance and calm.

Unfortunately for some, exercise is something which proves a challenge to stick with. If exercise feels like a chore, or something unenjoyable, the likelihood is it will drop off the minute things feel more difficult; whether that’s getting busy at work, feeling preoccupied with stressful life events, sleepless nights or a dip in mood. This means we often don’t get the ‘exercise effect’ when we need it the most. So how can we make sure we are harnessing the far-ranging benefits of exercise as much as possible, even when the going gets tough? Here are some things to consider:

  • Exercise can be hugely varied and doesn’t need to involve pushing yourself through some torturous gym routine. Find something which works for you; which feels good and you find enjoyable. Could that be team sports, running clubs, Zumba classes or Crossfit? Or could it be walking, yoga, martial arts or climbing? The options are endless but don’t need to involve a significant commitment or investment.
  • Set yourself realistic goals: whether this is the number of times you intend to do some exercise per week, a particular exercise target or even just the agreement with yourself that you will do some form of movement each day, even if it’s just a walk at lunch time.
  • The point of realistic goals is not just to support consistency and motivation, but to avoid setting yourself up to fail. When we’re not at our best, we can be particularly skilled at beating ourselves up, giving ourselves another reason to feel bad, thereby countering the exercise effect entirely. To avoid this, set yourself goals which are manageable even on a bad day. Anything extra can be an added bonus.
  • Be compassionate to yourself. Sometimes life doesn’t work the way you plan it. If you have to scale exercise back to avoid stressing yourself out even more, then do just that and be kind to yourself about it. Remember, any movement will give you the positive boost; you don’t need to push yourself to the limit to achieve this.
  • If you are not someone who exercises regularly, a key tip would be to start small. Start gently and slowly; sit back and enjoy seeing small improvements. This will allow for the best endorphin boost.
  • Exercise goals should be for you. Try to avoid too much comparison with others until you are feeling resilient and up for the highs and lows that competitiveness brings.
  • For me, exercise works best as part of a routine. This can help avoid spending energy questioning whether to go to the gym or not. It also means I can schedule workouts for when my energy and motivation levels are at their highest.  
  • Exercise can be most beneficial when it’s sociable. When your motivation is dipping, having friends who will be there to make it more fun and cheer you on can be invaluable!
  • If you’re struggling to get going, remind yourself how you will feel afterwards – will you feel better for having done something, for proactively trying to give yourself that energy boost?

Of course, there are also some risks to using exercise to manage our moods or difficult experiences. There is a balance to be sought to stop exercise becoming a source of avoidance or preoccupation. If you are someone who can be prone to becoming obsessive about targets or goals, be careful you don’t fall into the trap of over-exercising and injuring yourself. Make sure you have other ways of expressing and managing emotions in your life. If you are prone to setting yourself unrealistic goals or holding yourself to unrealistic standards, be aware that exercise could provide you with the perfect thing to beat yourself up about! Try lowering your expectations of yourself, focus on recognising small achievements and practice being a little kinder to yourself.

It is also worth noting that while exercise has been demonstrated to be highly supportive of emotional well-being, it is not an all-round cure for mental health problems. If you are struggling, you might find a combination of factors helpful in recovery; exercise being just one.

If you would like to talk further about any struggles with emotional well-being or managing your mood, please do get in touch for a free discussion.