So, do workouts *really* boost mood?

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  • Your need-to-knows.

    Ever wondered how exercise and mental health are actually linked?

    You’ve likely seen fit-fluencers posting all over the ‘Gram about how mood-boosting a sweat session can be, with everyone from Fearne Cotton to the Kardashians advocating for movement to help mental health. Last year, the NHS confirmed that doctors will even now be prescribing some forms of group exercise as a way of helping patients with depression.

    It’s commonly accepted that moving your body is a way to lift low mood and, in turn, boost your mental health – but do you know why, or how?

    It’s a fair question, but one that you’ll need to do a deep dive into the science for to understand. That’s why we’ve enlisted the help of Dal Banwait, otherwise known as the Happiologist, a positive psychology coach at Freeletics.

    Don’t miss our guide to workout recovery, our health editor’s game-changing fitness tips, and how to build a morning routine that works for you, while you’re here.

    Exercise and mental health: your guide

    First things first: it’s important to understand that the link between exercise and mental health has been recognised for centuries and studied extensively for over two decades. “In the last twenty years, researchers have found that humans are made to move,” shares Banwait. “Different structures in our body – muscles, bones, and brain – need physical activity to stay healthy.”

    Case in point: one University of Vermont study showed that physical exercise for in-patient treatment was so effective at alleviating symptoms that it reduced both patients’ time spent in an in-patient facility and reliance on psychotropic medications.

    Not only that, but a study in the medical journal The Lancet Psychiatry looked at three years worth of surveys and found that a person generally feels 3.4 bad mental health days per month. “Yet when they looked at people who included exercise in their daily routine however, researchers found that bad mental health days dropped by about 40 per cent,” she shares.

    Several other studies have shown that an active lifestyle is associated with a lower risk of developing mood and anxiety disorders.

    So, why? And how does exercise actually boost mood? It’s important to understand what exactly is going on in your body when you move. “Exercise triggers the release of many different chemicals in your brain including endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, which can help to elevate your mood, regulate and improve your sleep quality, relieve pain, and even reduce stress,” explains the psychologist.

    When you exercise, your bones become stronger, and they adapt by building more bone and becoming denser. “In turn, your brain gets more oxygen, releasing hormones to promote growth in brain cells, and promote brain plasticity,” she goes on.

    Do note here, of course, that while exercise has been scientifically proven to improve mood, it’s not a replacement for medical attention or therapy. Do see a medical professional, if you are struggling with your own mental health.

    5 benefits of exercise on mental health

    Studies have shown dozens of benefits of exercise on mental health:

    1. Improves sleep

    Did you know? “Physical activity increases the quantity and quality of sleep,” explains Banwait. In turn, your mood is more balanced when you improve your sleep, and your stress levels tend to decrease, she goes on.

    2. Improves concentration

    Working out has also been proven to improve concentration, control, and our self-esteem.

    “These feelings can come from completing a single workout and tend to stay with us throughout the day in the form of productivity, improved self-love, and improved brain function,” she shares.

    3. Boosts energy

    Not only that, but exercise actually gives you energy, too. Sure, doing something – well, knackering – might not sound like it’ll make you less tired, but trust us on this one.

    High intensity interval training, reformer Pilates, Barre, or weight training – whatever your workout of choice, thanks to those handy endorphins, you’re near guaranteed to feel energised post-session.

    4. Improves memory

    Fun fact: exercise can improve memory by helping the brain create new neural pathways in different parts of the brain.

    “Studies have shown that a consistent exercise routine is associated with a higher volume in a few different brain regions,” shares the psychologist.

    5. Exercise makes us more resilient to stress

    And finally, working out can make us more resilient to stress because it helps your brains produce feel-good chemicals like:

    • Serotonin – a neurotransmitter that has a direct effect on anxiety and depression
    • Endorphins – the feel-good hormone
    • Lowering cortisol levels – the stress hormone.

    Exercise and mental health: Two woman taking a selfie post-workout

    Keen to workout but not sure where to start? Let these tips help 

    1. Don’t be intimidated

    Feeling a bit intimidated by a workout setting or gym anxiety setting in? That’s normal – and do remember that a lot of progress can be made without a gym.

    Fitness apps are a brilliant way to get familiar with exercise and create a sustainable fitness regime which will help you to reach your goals without having to set foot in a gym,” shares the psychologist.

    2. Build up slowly

    Little and often, and all that. “Do build your fitness up slowly when first starting to incorporate physical activity into your daily routine,” shares Banwait. “Don’t push yourself or your body too hard right out of the gate.”

    Try this: workout for ten minutes to begin with, then increase your sweat session for five minutes every week until you’re are comfortable working out for anything from 45 minutes to a full hour. Try our health ed’s go-to glute workout, core workout, lower body workout, or full body workout, if you’re stuck for exercise motivation.

    3. Find the right workout for you

    Most important of all: find a gym or workout that works for you. “You’ll want a space that is friendly, inclusive, and suits your needs – do what feels best for you,” shares the psychologist.

    Think about it: you’ll never stick to a workout routine if you don’t actually enjoy it.

    4. Rope in a friend

    Making your workout time social time is one of the easiest ways to make sure you actually commit to sweat sessions.

    And remember, fitness comes in many different forms. “Spend time with friends, partner, family, and walk, run, or dance together, Banwait explains.

    5. Get to the root of the issue

    And finally, if you dread exercise or simply don’t enjoy it, she recommends working out why, exactly, you don’t like it.

    “Building a positive relationship with exercise is so important,” she explains. It’s not the enemy or an extra task, she goes on, so advises trying and get to the root of what stops you from exercising more. Is it because:

    • You found it hard at school?
    • You don’t think you’re good at it?
    • You’re conscious that you might be judged?

    “Remind yourself that none of these things are true,” she encourages. “Pick something you enjoy, and you will know longer see it as exercise but something you love to do.”

    Bottom line: there are a whole plethora of ways that exercise positively affects our mental health, but do note, no amount of exercise can replace prescribed mental health support from your doctor. Plus, exercise addiction is very real, so do be careful not to overdo it.

    Happy sweating…

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