Exercise and mental health

exercise and mental health

The parallels between exercise and a better body aren’t too difficult to imagine.

If you go running four times a week, you’d imagine yourself to improve your physical stamina as well as lose a few pounds in body weight. If you train your biceps twice a week in the gym, you’d imagine over a couple of months to have developed bigger and stronger biceps. Of course, it isn’t that simple, but the connection is easy to establish.

But the effects of exercise on your wellbeing and mental health are not so obvious. You can’t ‘see’ your mental health after all.

Why would going for a run create a healthier brain? Why would lifting weights help your mental mindset and make you feel better? How is a group body blast class at 9am on a Sunday morning going to reduce a feeling of anxiety?

On the surface, it’s not exactly clear, but below the surface physical exercise and psychological health are closely linked. The body is one whole, super complex machine. What happens to your body, also happens to your brain, and therefore your mental health.

People who exercise regularly tend to do so because it makes them feel better. It gives them a tremendous sense of well-being. They sleep better at night, feel more energetic throughout the day, more relaxed, have better moods and generally feel positive about themselves and their lives.

The great thing is this: no matter what your age, fitness level, current mental health standing or past relationship with physical activity, everyone can reap the benefits of exercise and use it as a powerful tool to feel better.


Defining exercise and mental health

The World Health Organisation defines physical activity as any movement of the body that uses muscles and burns energy. Daily pottering, walking around, work, leisure activities, household chores and more, can all be described as physical activity.

Exercise sits as a subsection to physical activity and it usually more organised and goal driven. For an activity to be labelled as exercise, it’s generally ‘planned, structured, repetitive, and aims to improve or maintain one or more components of physical fitness’.

Mental health is an overarching term for our emotional, psychological and social well-being. It plays perhaps the most important role in everyday life, affecting how we think, feel, and act, as well as determining how we handle stress, productivity levels, relationships with others and our decision-making process. It also involves feelings of optimism, self-esteem, satisfaction and having a sense of purpose.

Poor mental health can manifest itself in different ways and lead to several ‘mental health issues’. This term is often used to describe a difficulty that causes concern or interrupts our ability to go about our daily lives in a normal way.

Common mental health problems include stress, anxiety, a feeling of being overwhelmed, exhaustion, sleep problems, negative thoughts and mood swings. If issues aren’t looked at and addressed, they can eventually cause more severe problems and ‘mental health illness’, which refers to a clinical identifiable condition that impacts cognitive and emotional functioning.


Exercise and Mental Health: The health and fitness professional

More recently there’s been a shift from trying to prevent and ease mental illness to an emphasis on working proactively on mindset and wellbeing before any issues are present. Importantly, this type of approach acknowledges that good mental health isn’t just the absence of symptoms, but is multi-layered and intricate. Good mental health needs to be invested in. This is where exercise comes in.

It’s vital that all health practitioners – including personal trainers and sports coaches – are fully informed on the benefits of exercise for physical and mental wellbeing.

At Storm Fitness Academy we help fitness enthusiasts become fitness professionals, and regularly talk about the positive effects that exercise has on mental health.  In order to empower our trainers with the knowledge they need to promote the overwhelming mental health benefits of exercise, we are going to be releasing an exercise and mental health e-learning course very soon. Watch this space 😀

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