Written by Josh Horsman
We all know that being physically active is good for our bodies. But our physical health and mental health are closely linked – so physical activity can be very beneficial for our mental health and wellbeing too. Lots of us don’t get enough exercise to stay healthy, but physical activity is particularly important if you have a mental health problem. This is because people with mental health problems are more likely to have a poor diet, smoke or drink too much alcohol, or be overweight/obese (this can be a side effect of taking medication). So if you have a mental health problem, the health benefits of becoming more physically active are even more significant.
Wellbeing
The term ‘Wellbeing’ describes a combination of three key elements of health, and can be defined as: ‘A positive physical, social and mental state’.
Exercise is key to maintaining wellbeing in each of the three areas but, while the physical and social benefits of exercise are constantly reinforced, the impact exercise can have on mental wellbeing is often overlooked.

Mental wellbeing encompasses many different components, but according to the Faculty of Public Health, it describes the following:

  • The ability to deal with the ups and downs of life, such as coping with challenges and making the most of opportunities
  • The sense of feeling good about ourselves and being able to function well individually or in relationships
  • The feeling of connection to our community and surroundings
  • Having control and freedom over our lives
  • Having a sense of purpose and feeling valued

Mental Wellbeing is about our ability to deal mentally with the highs and lows of life and to maintain a normal healthy and active style. It isn’t about being happy all the time, but being in a mental state where we are able to manage our emotions through the good times, the bad times and normal daily life.

Exercise and Wellbeing
Physical exercise has always been lauded for its ability to lift even the lowest mood but in recent decades, scientific studies have added concrete evidence to the theory that exercise improves mental wellbeing. A groundbreaking Finnish study published in 1999, for example, concluded that: “”[Those who exercised] at least two to three times a week experienced significantly less depression, anger, cynical distrust, and stress than those exercising less frequently or not at all”. To enjoy the full benefits, you should aim to workout multiple times per week, however these sessions can be short, more intensive bursts or longer, more leisurely routines.
Studies have found that regular physical activity has positive effects on each of the following elements of mental wellbeing:

Mood: Physical activity has been shown to have a positive impact on mood. Numerous studies have found that people feel more content, awake and calm following physical activity than periods of inactivity. This is because exercise increases energy levels, and produces feelings of productivity and self-fulfilment. Research has found that low-intensity aerobic workouts for 30-35 minutes 5 days a week have the biggest impact upon mood.  

Stress Levels: When we exercise, the body increases its production of feel-good chemicals called ‘endorphins’, these chemicals encourage positive feelings of calmness. Exercising also requires concentration and mental focus which gives the mind respite from dwelling on worries and concerns. Over time, regular exercise encourages feelings of calm and optimism and these feelings translate into daily life.

Self-esteem: Self-esteem is an important component of mental health, when we feel good about ourselves, we feel more positively about life. Regular exercise affects our physical bodies, changing the way we look as well as making us healthier and less susceptible to illness and disease. When we take care to exercise and look after our physical well being it gives us a new perspective on ourselves, boosting our self-esteem.

Depression and anxiety: For those with mild depression or anxiety, physical exercise can be used to ease symptoms as part of a treatment plan in combination with medication, or as an alternative treatment in its own right. Not only are the mood-boosting, stress-relieving benefits of exercise are proven to combat the effects of depression and anxiety, but exercise is something anyone can do, making it an accessible and affordable treatment option. Using exercise to treat these conditions also enables the patient to take ownership of their treatment, developing self-management skills and increasing self-esteem.  

How To Start
It is estimated that only 5.5% of men and 54% of women exercise enough to meet the government recommended 2.5hrs a week of moderate-intensity exercise, so chances are you may not already be a fitness fanatic. Often people who don’t exercise regularly do not do so because they are unsure of where to begin.
To help you get started, here are a few helpful tips for creating a regular fitness routine:

  • Decide if you want to work out alone or in a group
  • Join a fitness class or find a sport that you enjoy
  • Set yourself goals, whether fitness-related or time-centred
  • Make time for working out and don’t allow yourself to make excuses
  • Start with low-intensity workouts and gradually increase the difficulty
  • Keep a record of your progress
  • Find ways to stay active in daily life, whether at work or home