Mental health and exercise: What’s the connection?

As a personal trainer, I’ve always promoted exercise as one of the best ways of looking after your body. But the benefits of exercise go way beyond the physical elements; it’s one of the best ways of maintaining wellbeing and keeping your mental health in check.

Generally speaking, people know that they should exercise; they know that if they joined the gym or followed a fitness plan then their bodies would benefit. Weight loss, muscle gain, improved fitness, reduced risk of illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and even cancer; we know what the physical benefits of exercising are.

But what about the mental benefits? Sadly, mental illness is still taboo in society – there’s still a stigma attached which means that it isn’t talked about in the same way as our physical health. Mental health charity Mind recently published research that shows that approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience mental health problems – and CALM’s Project 84 recently unveiled that suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK, with an average of 84 men taking their own lives each week.

There’s no right way to deal with mental health. For some, medication is necessary, whereas others benefit from talking therapies and counselling. But whatever path you choose to go down, exercise is another tried and tested way to keep your mental health in check. In the spirit of being open and helping to break down stigma around mental illness, I can say that I am 1 in 4; there have been times when things have been tough for me mentally, and my saviour has always been exercise. Getting a good workout in the gym has always helped me to clear my mind, destress and to keep any anxious thoughts at bay.

That’s why I’m a firm believer in using exercise as a way of promoting wellbeing in my clients – both physically and mentally. Once you stop treating the mind and body as two separate entities and realise that one can’t function properly without the other, it all falls into place.

Why is exercise good for mental health?

The bottom line is that your mind can’t function at its best if your body isn’t working properly. Yet when you’re feeling low or anxious, it can be harder than normal to get yourself moving, or to find the motivation to get in a workout – and it can become a harmful cycle.

But if you can find a way to break the cycle, exercise can have profound effects on your mental health and wellbeing. People who work out regularly tend to feel more alert and energetic throughout the day, sleep better at night and generally feel more relaxed and positive about life – all elements that can be affected negatively if you’re struggling with mental health problems.

Some studies actually show that exercise can treat mild/moderate depression as effectively as medication; exercise promotes neural growth in the brain, helps to reduce inflammation and can serve as a great distraction. The release of endorphins after a workout can help to boost your mood and to stay focused on the positives – and it’s also good way to break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that can feed depression.

Similarly, exercise can be a great way of reducing anxiety and calming the mind. If you find yourself with a noisy mind or have a hundred different thoughts bouncing around at once, it can become overwhelming and difficult to deal with – so exercising in a way that allows you to focus on yourself and your body can be an effective way of interrupting the constant flow of worry and anxiety.

Where should I start?

Taking steps to be active doesn’t mean that you need to spend hours in the gym or run for miles and miles – unless that’s what appeals to you! Many people struggle to find the motivation to exercise, and if you’re dealing with mental health problems too then it’s possible that you’ve got less motivation than normal.

Start with something gentle like a 15-minute walk outside; getting some fresh air and surrounding yourself with nature (if that’s your thing!) is a good starting point to build upon. Finding something that you enjoy, setting yourself a challenge – no matter how small – and focusing on a goal can all help in the battle against mental health.

Sadly, there’s no quick fix for mental health and as a nation we’ve still got a way to go when it comes to our approach – but incorporating exercise into your daily routine, being open and honest about what’s going on mentally and focusing on yourself and your goals is a great place to start. It worked for me, and I believe that with the right approach it can work for you too.


3 thoughts on “Mental health and exercise: What’s the connection?

  1. I think this is great. As someone who struggles with depression, breaking the cycle of staying in is incredibly hard and I’ve been fighting it since 2014 when I started running to raise money for charity. This year I’ve finally had a breakthrough with breaking the cycle after taking 2017 ‘off’ from running, and I’m running consistently each week and actually enjoying it, rather than it being a chore and something to be done because it’s good for me, I need to train for races where I’m fundraising, trying to keep up with faster running club members……… the list goes on. My motivation is now on just me having time for me with no pressures at all (including no running club as I didn’t rejoin).


  2. Awesome and very real for me. Exercise really has been my life saver especially in the early days of recovery from alcohol x


  3. This is brill, thank you for sharing
    I definitely feel much better after exercise. Despite not liking my body very much, exercising reassures me how strong I am and what my body can do..


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