How does exercise make you feel? Whatever your current level of fitness, it’s likely that you already know that staying active has serious physical benefits. But what about the improvements we can’t necessarily see, but we can definitely feel? I’m talking here about the benefits to your mental health and wellbeing. It may surprise you to read that as a personal trainer, I believe these are of equal, if not greater importance than those well known physical benefits.
I’ve experienced huge positive changes to my mental health as a result of regular exercise myself, having suffered with post natal depression and anxiety. I’ve also seen these changes happen in many other women, through my work as a personal trainer and in my experience, it really can be transformative.
Read on to find out how you can use exercise to help your mental health and wellbeing, and why this doesn’t mean you have to spend your life in the gym.
BOOST YOUR HAPPY HORMONES
Does exercise actually help your mental health? Let’s start with the science. Research has shown that exercise increases your levels of feel good hormones and can positively alter your brain chemistry. This affects your mental health and wellbeing in a number of powerful ways, including helping your body respond better to stress, lifting your mood and even providing some natural pain relief.
Some studies have shown that these changes are even greater when exercise is done outdoors in natural daylight and a “green” space. There’s nothing quite like being in fresh air and around nature, even if it’s just for a brisk walk around your local park, so get outdoors during the day if you can to maximise the benefits.
FIND YOUR TRIBE
If you don’t want to workout alone, then joining an exercise class, or heading out for a run with a friend can have additional mental health benefits. Feeling part of a community and being around like-minded people has an important role in our mental wellbeing. We have an innate need to feel connected to others and be part of the shared human experience, knowing we are not alone in how we think and feel. Sometimes the thought of being the new girl in an exercise class might seem the more stressful option, but believe me as someone who has taught many exercise classes – most people there will be too busy concentrating on what they are doing and how they are feeling to worry what you are up to! If you’re new to an exercise class and feeling anxious, let the instructor know beforehand. I often get messages like this from women coming to train with me for the first time and it’s really helpful for me to know as I can then answer any questions and allay any fears – remember it’s our job to help you feel at ease.
CLEAR YOUR MIND
Whether it’s concentrating on the moves in an exercise class, or getting absorbed in your surroundings on a run outdoors, exercise can really help to break the pattern of repetitive or unhelpful thoughts, which can be so draining when you are struggling with your mental health. Exercise quite literally “takes you out of yourself” and can help you to switch off. I often say that my runs act as a reset for my brain when it’s feeling particularly busy. If you don’t like the thought of being “alone” with your thoughts, then crank up the music. It can serve as a great distraction (as well as being another brilliant mood booster); or if you’re heading out for a walk or a run, why not try an audiobook or a podcast?
GET MORE SLEEP
Lack of sleep really can negatively impact our mental health, but regular exercise can have a positive impact on both your quality and quantity of sleep. There are lots of reasons why this might be, aside from the obvious reason that if you feel physically tired, then you are more likely to fall asleep! Exercising outside in natural daylight can also help to regulate your body’s circadian rhythms, which can make you feel more alert in the day and more sleepy at bedtime – yet another reason to take that workout outside! Whatever the reason, exercise can help improve your quality and quantity of sleep but a word of warning here – some people find that intense exercise in the last few hours leading up to bedtime can have the opposite effect, so save the HIIT class for the morning.
IMPROVE YOUR SELF ESTEEM
Looking after your body and challenging it physically can be hugely empowering and really help your confidence and self-esteem. Even if you’re a complete newcomer to exercise, stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new can be very fulfilling and encourage you to feel proud of yourself. Goal setting is also key here – this can give you a sense of purpose and a feeling of moving forwards rather than being “stuck”.
I always encourage my personal training clients to think beyond the usual aesthetic-based goals such as weight loss. I would encourage you to do the same and really think about what you would like to achieve through exercise, whether that’s mastering a full press up, or running a 5k. Not only this, but think about how you would like to feel as a result of exercising. More body confident? More patient and resilient? Better able to cope with low moods? Exercise can help with all of these goals.
I’m often asked, what is the best form of exercise for your mental health and wellbeing? In short, one which you enjoy and one which fits in with your life, so you are able to stick with it. Sometimes this is a question of trial and error but I firmly believe there’s something out there for everyone! If you don’t know where to start, then book a session with a personal trainer. We’ve got a great overview of all of the options and can can tailor these to suit you, so you find something you really love and which helps you.
Carly is a personal trainer specialising in women’s health. She is passionate about helping women work towards a healthy body and a happy mind, through her personal training business CLC Fitness, based in Guildford, Surrey. To find out more about working with her, click her profile at the top of the page.