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How to utilise physical activity to improve mental health and wellbeing

18 May 2022

Taking Charge Of Our Mental Health Through Movement

Managing our mental health is essential in an ever-demanding and fast-paced world, but fortunately there are plenty of self-care options available to help keep that an easy task. It can be as simple as daily movement: a new sport, a morning walk, some evening stretching or a weekend swim to help release stress, improve our mood, and reduce anxiety and overwhelm.

Even as little as 10 minutes of brisk walking has been found to improve cognitive function and mental alertness, boost energy – and perhaps most crucially to our daily wellbeing, as well as improving mood and positive mental outlook.

Let’s take a look at the ways in which movement can help manage mental health, what research has helped confirm, and how you can find movement that works for you to improve your mental wellbeing, whatever you’re facing.

How Can Movement Help?

Movement And Stress

Many studies have been done into the impact of physical activity on our mental wellbeing, with many positive correlations found.

Whilst stress can be useful as its biological aim is to alert us to a need for action – fight, flight, or freeze – in response to a stimulus, it can often be triggered in extremis in our busy daily lives in the modern world, and create negative side effects and, sometimes, even chronic health complaints. Stress can trigger sleeping problems, sweating, and loss of appetite, alongside increased anxiety, fatigue, and low mood. Increased blood pressure in the body, caused by stress hormone release, can over time lead to heart problems and cardiovascular problems.

This can all sound like cause for concern – and left untreated it may be – but physical exercise has been found to be one of the most effective tools in relieving stress. Physical activity releases endorphins, the “feel-good” neurotransmitters within the brain. These release a rush of high mood in the body, and when exercise is taken regularly, can lead to better mood and emotion management. The increased circulation of blood and oxygen in the body generated in response to intense physical movement can also help improve cardiovascular health, improve cognitive function and clear anxiety, stress, and brain fog.

Movement And Depression And Anxiety

Many people use medication and talking therapies to manage long term anxiety and depression, to great therapeutic effect. Alongside these treatments, the use of exercise can also greatly alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety and make self-management easier and more reliable. Physical movement can also be a great aid on its own for individuals who may not feel medication or therapy is right for them, or if they don’t have those resources available to them. Physical movement has great physical and mental benefits, as well as creating another space for social connection, which can alleviate some of the pains of mental illness or periods of poor mental health.

Aerobic exercises, including jogging, cycling, walking, swimming, gardening, and dancing, have all been recognised to reduce depression and anxiety by improving blood flow around the body, leading to improved cognitive function, better mood management, and improved problem solving which, in turn, can lead to greater self-esteem.

The nature of team sports or shared activity spaces also leads to increased opportunity to make social connections and build relationships, a key component in improving mental wellbeing and creating a positive outlook on life. When we feel united in a community – seen, heard, respected, and understood – we feel more positively about ourselves as we are cared for by others and part of a collective, and know we have support in times of difficulty.

What Movement Should I Do?

There is no right answer to finding the kind of movement that’s right for you – it will depend entirely on your preferences, resources, and capability as an individual. If you’re limited for time, you may not want to commit to a long hike or cross-country run. If you like to keep social, a team sport may work for you – or perhaps swimming is the one for you if you like some calm solitude in your day.

The key to finding the perfect kind of physical activity for you is to try them! See what fits and learn what doesn’t. Ultimately, you’re looking for an activity you enjoy, and that you can commit to doing at least 2 or 3 times a week for maximum benefit. The rest is up to you.

So, look up the details of your local gym or swimming pool, hit the tennis courts with some friends, or dust off your old running shoes. Whatever you try first, allow yourself to be a beginner and enjoy the spirit of trying something new. The only thing that decides the limit for activity is you, and when you find something you love you’ll start to see the mental health benefits soon enough. Let’s get moving!